“Darkest Hour” is getting some key endorsements as it revs up its awards season campaign.
The historical drama about Winston Churchill’s efforts to rally the British people in the bleakest days of World War II has been embraced by members of the prime minister’s family and by Churchill experts. They believe that the film, with a few dramatic embellishments, is a good faith effort to capture a vital period in Churchill’s prime ministership — a time when he was being pressured to sign a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler and did not yet have the popular and political support he needed to wage the war.
“My take is overwhelmingly positive,” said Michael Bishop, executive director of the International Churchill Society and the director of the National Churchill Library at George Washington University. “It’s a great opportunity to spark renewed interest in Churchill.”
“Darkest Hour” is backed by Focus Features, the indie label behind “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” It is expected to be a major Oscar contender, with many awards handicappers predicting that Gary Oldman will capture several gold statues for his transformative turn as Churchill. Oldman certainly has Bishop’s vote.
“Casting Gary Oldman was a stroke of genius,” he said. “His performance is one for the ages and it’s the best screen portrayal of Churchill that I’ve ever seen. He captures his energy and dynamism.”
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In addition, Focus has hosted Churchill family members at tastemaker screenings and events, including a showing this month for the International Churchill Society. That screening was attended by Edwina Sandys and Celia Sandys, who’s mother was Diana Churchill, Winston’s daughter. Randolph Churchill and Jennie Churchill, whose grandfather was Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, were also on hand.
It’s become an awards season tradition to amass endorsements from the real-life counterparts of biographical films or their representatives. “Milk” got a boost when it was embraced by Cleve Jones, an AIDS activist and friend of Harvey Milk, while last year’s “Loving” got the seal of approval from Peggy Loving, the real-life daughter of Richard and Mildred Loving — the couple that helped topple miscegenation laws. Sometimes it doesn’t work out in a film’s favor. HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” had to grapple with criticism from some members of Lacks’ family that the film exploited Henrietta’s legacy (other family members liked the picture).
Bishop said he’s heard from members of the International Churchill Society who are similarly effusive about the film, Oldman’s work, and director Joe Wright’s handling of the drama. They’ve even made peace with “Darkest Hour’s” decision to invent a scene where Churchill polls ordinary British citizens during a London tube ride.
During a screening for the society, Wright explained why he resorted to the embellishment.
“What we do know is that Churchill went to the people often and that he was a very emotional man,” Wright said. “The British people felt a kinship with him, and it was important that, that moment, he wasn’t just listening to the aristocrats.”
Inevitably, “Darkest Hour,” with its portrait of the Western world rising to meet anti-democratic forces, will be compared to our current, fractious political climate. At a screening for the society, Wright said modern-day parallels didn’t inspire him to make the movie.
“When we started making the film Brexit and President Trump hadn’t happened,” Wright said. “I wasn’t looking to make a film with huge topicality, it just happened. When I make a film, I want to learn something, not teach something. I want to hear something, not say something. This film takes place with a very specific enemy. If people want to find parallels in that, or use it to open up a conversation, then that is wonderful.”
Bishop won’t get into issues such as Brexit or Donald Trump’s rise, but he does acknowledge that Churchill may resonate with modern viewers in a way he would not have a few years ago.
“There’s a powerful yearning for leadership right now,” he said.