Can Gary Oldman bring his own spin to an iconic historical war figure?
History often has a way of repeating itself – and that’s particularly true when it comes to the film industry and its love for the biopic.
The portrayal of a figure so intrinsic as to how we understand a moment in our own historical timeline is no mean feat, especially if it has already been done by someone else first.
That’s the situation Gary Oldman found himself in when contacted to play polemic war prime minister Winston Churchill in a Great Britain on the cusp of World War II.
After turning down three calls to play the famed leader within a year, Oldman finally relented for Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, set to release on 11th January.
So why was he so reluctant?
“The first thing is you don’t want to play it,” he said in an interview at the Toronto Independent Film Festival. “The prospect of doing it is really scary, and then those are often the ones that are worthwhile, the ones that give you a little bit of fear and sleepless nights.
“I had an idea in my head – being British – of who Churchill was,” he explained. “But some of that is influenced by people that have played him. So I pushed that all to one side and found a great deal of archive footage of him – and from that you start to build and hope that at the end of it all, you pull it off.
“You can’t wing this; it was mountainous,” he later told actress Kate Winslet in Variety’s Actors on Actors series. “What’s the worst that could happen? I’d be awful. We’d get over it, we’d move on with our lives. So I said yes, and the moment you step onto the wire and you see the drop below you… And so it began.”
A crisis of confidence? He’s not alone. When questioned on what it felt like to meet Queen Elizabeth II after portraying her in The Queen (2006), Helen Mirren told The Telegraph, “I feel like saying I am so sorry and I promise I will stop.”
And with previous hallowed names including John Lithgow, Michael Gambon and Timothy Spall already having stepped into the cigar-smoking leader’s shoes, maybe Oldman was right to be a little nervous.
But as his Golden Globe-winning performance seems to be succeeding where his contemporaries failed, it seems that he has brought something to the notoriously belligerent politician that others didn’t.
“You’ve got to surrender to what it is,” he reflected. “You’ve got to find a place and a focus.
You can’t do a Darkest Hour and fight the process. I couldn’t wait to be Winston.
“I needed to see Churchill looking back at me in the mirror to have the chutzpah to get up there and do him justice,” he added, commenting on his unrecognisable look in the film thanks to artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who he lured out of retirement to make the transformation. “There’s a lot of Churchill and there’s some me – we found a good balance.”
Also starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
Running time: 125 mins
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WORDS Camille Hogg