Darkest Hour

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A character-driven film about Winston Churchill – brilliantly played by Gary Oldman – during 20 days in May 1940 and confined between the walls of Downing Street’s war rooms is presented as Britain’s, arguably the world’s and also the Prime Minister’s, Darkest Hour. In that space and in that moment British politicians were debating whether to sue for peace with Hitler or to fight on when its army faced annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk.
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Joe Wright directs Anthony McCarten’s script in a Focus Features and Working Title release for which Valerio Bonelli (Philomena, Viceroy’s House) took editorial reigns. The director started talking to Bonelli about the project while they were in post on the “Nosedive” episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror around April 2016. “He gave me the script and I read it quite quickly,” says Bonelli. “I’m normally a slow reader and I like to take my time to digest each scene and understand the structural narrative, but with Darkest Hour the experience was different.

It was visceral and emotional. I remember the feeling of my skin bumping up and getting emotional. The stakes were high; the world could have gone in a completely different direction if Churchill didn’t stand up for his own ideals and belief.” It’s an idea that could be suitable for TV or the stage – a dialogue-heavy political drama the outcome of which is known in advance.

Yet Darkest Hour is tense with its compressed timeframe – or time bomb – providing the film’s structure. “I think the same script in someone else’s hands may have ended up completely differently,” Bonelli says. “It might have been a straightforward period drama but Joe wanted to avoid that. Because the story is confined to a short amount of time where the destiny of the country and probably of the entire Western world was at stake, it afforded the opportunity to tell the story of this film with a thriller element. The interesting thing is that this ticking clock was not only in the story but also in Winston’s head because while we know the outcome of the story what makes it interesting is to be in Winston’s head. “

Also, he was apparently a very hyperactive, erratic individual who had ideas all the time. It was obvious that this story needed a certain pace in the way we were cutting it and the pace came through the process of development of Winston’s character as embodied by Gary Oldman. It was his sense of urgency to save the world, not just Britain, from fascism.” It’s also a story with obvious parallels to current world events. Darkest Hour’s production, however, began before Brexit so while the film has added resonance in light of current events, it was not the film-maker’s intention to comment on the modern world. “Ultimately, for me Darkest Hour is a lot about the connection between politicians and people and sometimes this connection is lost and so the politicians need to go back to the people in order to understand what is necessary to do for the good of the country.”

Wright and Bonelli referred to Listen to Britain, a 1942 documentary made by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister about life in wartime England, a film full of great lyrical images of rural and industrial England in the second world war. “That was the country that Winston was living in and seeing that incredible footage helped me a lot to understand the psychology of the British people.” Other film references included Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Downfall, about the last days of Hitler. Bonelli also went on location with Wright during shooting in London and in Yorkshire, North of England, where interiors were found in existing buildings as a match for Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. The film’s heart is the virtuoso performance from Oldman.

He managed not only a physical transformation, “he was even talking like Winston and was in character from beginning to the end of the shoot every day,” says Bonelli. “We only had to cover five small lines of dialogue in ADR in post because our sound recordist, John Casali, always made sure Gary’s dialogue was clear. “When you work with this caliber of actor it is often that the first take is brilliant and then the performance gets better and better,” he says. “If the director allows the actor the license to develop the character, which Joe did with Gary, then the actor will work on the details and it’s the accumulation of detail which takes the performance up a level.

He managed to deliver nuances you don’t really expect. “For example, the way he breathes then delivers a line or moves a cigar around his mouth which would change from one take to the next. The cigar is an extension of Churchill’s personality.” He explains, “Generally, the edit processes of cutting Gary’s performance was of fine-tuning and also shaping Churchill’s sense of depression and how he came out of the dark hole. We found out that by just staying a few seconds on a particular close-up and dropping the sound or creating a transition would help more than having lines of dialogue to explain the status of his mind.”

For all the justified focus on Oldman the film is supported by other notable performances including Kristin Scott Thomas who managed to give Clementine Churchill and her relationship with Winston “a lot of depth considering she was in the film for only seven scenes,” according to the editor. Principal photography began in November 2016 and ran through to the end of January 2017, after which Bonelli had seven weeks to make the director’s cut. Wright then took seven weeks away from the project to rehearse a stage show and while the picture was graded and the sound continued to be worked on, all cutting was postponed. It was a hiatus that paid dividends. “It was a great gift to come back with a clear mind and some detachment on how to cut the film down to length,” he says. In particular, there was a section after a phone call with President Roosevelt, where Churchill storms out of the phone booth and wanders around frustrated in search for some peace and quiet. Instead, he bumps into a secretary’s birthday party, and generals giving him bad news, which only irritates him more.

He retires to his own private theater and sits down to watch That Hamilton Woman (a 1941 film about Admiral Nelson) which was apparently one of Churchill’s favorites. There he would find his mojo again and have the idea to call Admiral Ramsay and organize Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk rescue. “This was a lovely sequence but for some reason it slowed down the film a lot in the center. I had the idea to use Winston fingertapping on the chair (a detail shot from another scene) to illustrate his mind working hard in order to find a solution after the call with Roosevelt and then cut straight to the map room. “We first tried to do this cut without using the finger tapping then one day I was thinking of [Wright’s] Atonement and how the typewriter machine is a character in the film so I tried to use the sound and the rhythm of Winston’s finger as a narrative device.

Joe was sad to lose the wandering sequence but pleased because the film was moving not only at the right pace but stylistically made sense.” The scenes that changed the most in the process of cutting the film were the war rooms meetings. “I remember Joe telling me that those were the scenes where he most needed my help. On page, they were dense of dialogue and full of characters around a table. Joe shot a series of wides and three-character shots that somehow symbolized the various opinions in the debate. I first cut the scene for the drama and for the best performance and that was helpful for us to understand what was missing and what was working.”

All the war cabinet scenes were shot over a week so it was very important to have different material in terms of the tone of performance that could help them carve the final film. “For example, when we first shot the second war cabinet sequence (during which Winston loses his temper and screams to foreign secretary Lord Halifax), Stephen Dillane’s performance was much higher pitched and he was kind of screaming too, so the scene was about two men screaming at each other in front of everyone. Joe and I agreed that we needed an alternative version of this scene where Halifax remained stoney faced and sober. This way the scene became more about Winston losing it and knowing that he was wrong and almost petulant like a child. This is a typical example where having the editor near the set discussing scenes and performances with the director day by day helps the film to grow.”

Wright’s shooting style on the film gave Bonelli a chance to experiment with sound design. “The fact that the war rooms are so confined and claustrophobic didn’t stop Joe from moving his camera horizontally through them,” he says. “We created a lot of interesting transitions from room to room and also played with the idea of mechanical sounds like air-conditioning and ventilation tubes to create a rhythm for dramatic scenes. The phone call with Roosevelt is one time where we had to create a sense of isolation and oppression using sound.” With the first radio speech, Bonelli employed a radical change of sound atmosphere to underline the change of light when the red record light comes on. “It’s a change in tone that allows you to create an extra element of tension,” he says. Dario Marianelli composed seven themes for the picture before editorial began. Bonelli used these to cut and would then send sequences to Wright. His comments would be referred back to Marianelli who would rework the themes to fit them better with the scenes. “It was a very rewarding experience because the cut grew organically with the music score.”

The first meeting between the King and Winston remained unchanged from the very first cut. “The way we used the wide shots to represent the formality of this ceremony and the way we used the close-up only after the kiss to try to connect the two characters is important,” says Bonelli. “Piano Trio in E flat from Schubert (used in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) helped to underline the distance but also the uncomfortable and comedic side of this scene.

This was the only case in the film where I used temp music. Otherwise Dario always gave me themes that then developed into cues and then became the final score of the film.” Bonelli’s team included first assistant Tommaso Gallone and second Abbie Hawkins, who took care of visual effects.