After an impressive bow at the Toronto Film Festival, where the film spurred talk of Oscar nominations for director Joe Wright and star Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour writer/producer Anthony McCarten and editor Valerio Bonelli talked Deadline’s first The Contenders London audience through their gripping period piece yesterday. Starring an unrecognizable Oldman as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the film details the first difficult months of the statesman’s tenancy at 10 Downing Street. And although it is set in the high heat of the Second World War, Bonelli stressed to Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. that the film isn’t “just a historical film or costume drama. It [is] a thriller. There is a ticking clock that runs from the beginning.”
For McCarten, the film was a chance to pay homage to a great British orator. “I’ve always had on my shelves a series of books,” he explained, “and I’ve always loved speeches and the art of great rhetoric. And in all these books you invariably find at least one speech by Winston Churchill and often two or three, and at some point early on I realized that three of the greatest speeches ever delivered were by Winston Churchill – and they were written and delivered within a four-week period of each other. A little bit of diving into the research started to give me a sense of what incredible forces were at work that spurred him to this outpouring of magnificent rhetoric.
“The received picture of Winston Churchill,” he continued, “is this pugnacious warrior who never brooked any doubt and was just, ‘Fight them, fight them, fight them.’ But when you actually dive into the minutes of the war records you find a man who shifted his position, often by the hour, on this issue and that’s what’s lacking in our normal historical version of this guy. Because this is not something that’s ever been celebrated – that he had doubts, that he was uncertain.”
Interestingly, McCarten was happy to address the elephant in the room – Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk, which takes place in the same timeframe. “There may be some adventurous editors further down the track,” he teased, “who could splice the two films together. [Nolan] has got the action material and we’ve got the backroom material. Ours differs in that our movie really pivots on the fact that it’s about, Will Winston Churchill cave in and do a peace deal with Hitler? Chris’s is about war and an evacuation. So we’re different but complementary. My original screenplay had a Dunkirk scene at the end [but] we didn’t feel we needed to shoot that. You can go and see Chris Nolan’s version if you want to see any of that. It’s a wonderful companion piece.”