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How Gary Oldman scored V for Victory over other screen Churchills

PUBLISHED: 09:22 12 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:55 12 January 2018

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, other Churchills Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Brian Cox and John Lithgow

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, other Churchills Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Brian Cox and John Lithgow

Archant

Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill in the early days of the war. It also features a remarkable portrayal by an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman. But how does it compare to the many others who have played him?

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright film Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright film Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Few figures loom as large in Britain’s public consciousness as Sir Winston Churchill.

His image is as easy to conjure up in our minds - cigar in hand, rotund in stature, instantly recognisable oratory, including some of the most important words in modern British history, including “We shall fight them on the beaches…”

To many, a picture of him is a picture of British defiance and strength.

The wartime leader has been portrayed many times on screen. The latest to play him is Gary Oldman who is almost unrecognisable in Darkest Hour, the new film by Atonement director Joe Wright, thanks to a face mould and foam bodysuit that took four hours to get in place.

The film focuses on the period during his first weeks in office as prime minister in 1940, during the early days of the Second World War, when he faced pressure from within his party to pursue peace with Hitler at any cost.

Kristin Scott Thomas as Winnie and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features Kristin Scott Thomas as Winnie and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Watching Oldman’s performance it’s hard to figure out where Oldman ends and Churchill begins. Through complex make-up effects (by Japanese special effects magician Kazuhiro Tsuji) seamlessly brings Churchill to full-blooded life. But ultimately it rested on Oldman’s shoulders to craft the character, which turned out to be a challenge is was more than up for.

“The characterisation of Churchill had to come through,” the actor explained. “The emotion and intent and all of that, has to come through the make-up. The character has to be there.”

The actor insists that it “wasn’t simply a matter of turning up and putting some rubber on and walking on set.” Instead, he’d delved into the historical data, mining the richness of Churchill for his performance.

“I’d done some research, watching footage and reading books, what you imagine getting ready for something like this.” But it wasn’t just the historical research that got Oldman plugged into who Churchill was; he embraced all aspects of Darkest Hour. “By the time we started filming, I knew the film like a play. I didn’t have to keep revisiting it every day.”

He didn’t have time to preview the day’s work even during the lengthy period he spent every day sitting in the make-up chair for his transformation.

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in Joe Wright film Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in Joe Wright film Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

“I knew there wasn’t time to look at the script and fidget and move around,” he said. “I wanted all the words to be inside me. I wanted them in there to such a point that I didn’t have to worry about it or think about it.”

It has certainly paid off

The British actor, whose protayal of Churchill is a far cry from his early career roles as Sid Vicous in Sid & Nacy or Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, scooped the best actor in a drama prize at this week’s Golden Globes. He seems certainly to pick up an Best Actor Oscar nomination next month.

Collecting his Golden Globe, he said he was proud of his film because it shows “words and actions can change the world, and boy oh boy does it need some changing”.

Though Churchill is central to Darkest Hour, the two women closet to him are pivotal to the film. Kristin Scott Thomas plays his stoic and chic wife Clementine, while Churchill’s secretary, Elizabeth Layton, is played in the film by Downton Abbey alumnus Lily James.

“Clementine is less well known today than Winston but, at the time, I think she was really important,” said Scott Thomas. “I don’t think she does get as much credit as she should. She was a great support to him, she provoked him, she consoled him, she kicked him when he needed a boot, and they had a very stormy relationship, a very passionate relationship, which lasted for many, many years.

“I think she was absolutely part of the engine, she was at the heart of it all.”

Lily James, who is playing her first real-life character, also felt the burden of history on her shoulders. “There were a lot of women during the war that feel like they have been forgotten and they are the unsung heroes.

“I could see a whole film about Clemmie and I could imagine a whole film about Elizabeth Layton - her book is just mind-blowing and detailed and moving - and if you saw that world all through the eyes of someone like Elizabeth you would get such an interesting perspective.

“Joe really captures that in this film and I think there was this army of women down in those war rooms that were there dedicating their lives.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill  in Lily James as Elizabeth Layton Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Lily James as Elizabeth Layton Darkest Hour. Photo: Universal Pictures/Focus Features

“They worked round the clock religiously, not able to tell their families what they were doing in order to keep the cogs of the war in motion, and so I think it’s really important that we remember those people.”

Review: Gary Oldman shines as Churchill in The Darkest Hour

Both are fulsome in their praise of Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill. “The moment I first saw Gary - actually I will rephrase that, the moment I first saw Churchill - is caught on camera and I was completely gobsmacked and taken aback and shocked,” said Lily James.

“It was as incredible in the flesh as it looks on screen and you can’t for one second tell it was make-up or prosthetic, he just looked like Winston Churchill, coming back from the dead to inspire us all.”

Scott Thomas admits she felt something similar. “It was such a shock, it was an audible gasp in the room when he entered dressed as Churchill for rehearsals.

“I think it was a very clever move on his part to arrive as this character in the full get-up, the full make-up, the full costume, because suddenly we realised where we had to aim, what was at stake, how much he had invested and how dedicated he was to doing it, to getting it right, and I think that upped everybody’s game.”

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR — SCREEN CHURCHILLS

Brian Cox — Gets the bombast but not the voice in Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill.

Michael Gambon — Doesn’t look much like him but moving performance in Churchill’s Secret.

John Lithgow — Surpringly good and Emmy award-winning for The Crown.

Timothy Spall — Jowl-quiveringly bulldog stereotype in The King’s Speech.

Brendan Gleeson — Excellent bow-tie and cigar, but struggles to hide Irish lilt in Into the Storm.

Albert Finney — Make-up heavy but pretty good in The Gathering Storm.

Robert Hardy — So good he played him numerous times including Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.

Timothy West — All droopy chin and slurred vowels Ian Curteis’s 1979 drama Churchill and the Generals.

Richard Burton — Not very accurate but brings out his scary side in Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years and The Gathering Storm.

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