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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 12:05 am

Chuck and Churchill

Illinois Times film critic Chuck Koplinski interviews Gary Oldman, star of The Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman, left, with Chuck Koplinski, during their recent meeting in Chicago.


With his many larger-than-life roles, it’s a bit disconcerting to discover that Gary Oldman’s presence is far from domineering.  Soft-spoken and standing a trim 5 feet 8 inches, his personality fills the room. He has no reason to shout and rend the scenery – his quiet confidence and his past achievements do that on their own.

In his latest, Darkest Hour, the actor is taking on his greatest challenge and most iconic role, that of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  It’s a role he’s been approached about over the course of many years, turning it down again and again.  However, the script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and the prospect of working with director Joe Wright (Atonement) was too enticing to pass up.  

Playing in a string of film festivals since September, the movie has been steadily building strong buzz before its national release on Dec. 22. Oldman’s performance has been universally praised and his efforts will likely nab him his first, long overdue Oscar come March.

During a stopover in Chicago to promote the film, I had the privilege of sitting down with the actor to discuss not only Darkest Hour, but also Churchill’s place in history and the vacuum in leadership we’re dealing with today.  I started by asking what from his research surprised him most about the man.

“I was surprised at his achievements,” said Oldman. “When you think of a man who wrote 50 books, all of which I’m told are worth reading, changed political parties twice, held almost every major political position, painted 544 paintings, had 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy, took us through the great war – at the beginning single-handedly before the Americans came in – he’s just a phenomenon.”  

Oldman as Churchill in The Darkest Hour.
While the information the actor gathered proved useful, it was a visual media that provided him with the key to unlocking the character.  “I went to a lot of the Pathe newsreels,” the actor recounted, “and watched a lot of film footage of him from that time period. What I discovered was here was a man who was not only dynamic but had a lot of energy, had a sparkle in his eye and had a great sense of humor.”

Perhaps the most daunting thing facing the actor was the preconceptions viewers have of Churchill. Finding a distinctive way to portray him would prove a challenge. “We have an idea of who Churchill was and I’m not sure how much of that is influenced by other actors who have played him,” said Oldman.  “Looking at the material and the newsreels was a revelation. We think of a man who was born in a bad mood, a curmudgeon, a grumpy guy and that’s with no disrespect, that ‘s just the way he is sometime portrayed.  Actually he was robust, alive, a man who loved life. That was a revelation to me.”

One of the things that makes Darkest Hour distinctive is that it looks at a previously unexamined part of Churchill’s life, the period when he first became prime minister, inherited a divided House of Parliament and had to convince a nation reticent to go to war to face a looming threat.

“The thing I liked about the screenplay was that it wasn’t about an entire life, just sort of a snapshot of this specific five-week time period. I had not realized how close we came,” Oldman reflected. “You know, in hindsight, which I guess is how we look at history, it appears to be a no-brainer from what we know. But at that time the pacifism was universal. I knew a bit about the war and Churchill before this but I didn’t realize it was so critical.  They didn’t want another war, they were war weary, they didn’t think there would be another war after the catastrophe of the first World War. So if it wasn’t hard enough doing that, he had a cabinet that was against him as well. He’s being asked all the time to go against his gut but he knows in his DNA that this is not the way to go. The words literally catch in his mouth.  He cannot dictate that negotiation. Churchill made himself at times unpopular, but he had an instinct, a real gut feeling about Hitler.”

While watching Darkest Hour, viewers are likely to be struck by what has become an antiquated approach to politics.  Strong determined leadership and, ultimately, bipartisanship are on display.  I asked the actor why he thought Churchill-like leaders are in such short supply today.  

“I think leadership, the true sort of statesmanship he had, I think we are constantly looking for it,” he mused. “It’s not really anchored to today, but all the generations before have been looking for that character.  Thatcher and Reagan complimented one another; they were very much on the same page.  I think we’ve all been looking for it. There just doesn’t seem to be any middle any more. It’s collapsed.  There’s over here on the right and then on the left and there’s no middle.”  

“But if the film makes you think of those issues of leadership, then it’s doing its job,” he continued.  “We didn’t set out to make anything particularly topical or relevant.  We were shooting the film in November of 2016 and things in the world shifted while we were making it.  So, it’s hard to take the temperature of something and then make a film because it takes so long. For instance, we didn’t know Dunkirk was in the works because Christopher Nolan keeps things quite secretive.  As it turns out, they would make a lovely box set, as they really complement each other.”

“We also didn’t know about Michael Gambon’s production (2016’s Churchill’s Secret) and the film with Brian Cox (2017’s Churchill),” he continued. “It’s an odd thing, someone who has a book on the shelf in their bookstore for years and years and years and then someone comes in and buys the book and then over the next month 10 people come in and say, ‘Do you have that book?’  All of a sudden it’s all things Churchill.”     

Chuck Koplinski had his first real opinion about a movie when he was eight years old but it took nearly 25 years before he could express his views in print. Sitting through well over 100 new films per year, and with his television constantly tuned to Turner Classic Movies in an effort to get his son to appreciate black and white films, all things cinema are his passion...except perhaps the films of Henry Jaglom and Dario Argento.


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