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‘Darkest Hour’ cohorts amazed as Oldman becomes Churchill

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Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman play Clementine and Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” (Courtesy Jack English/Focus Features)
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Joe Wright, director of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Hanna,” “Anna Karenina” and the new “Darkest Hour,” loves Kristin Scott Thomas’ watch.

As they sit at a corner table in the Ritz-Carlton restaurant during a recent visit to The City, Wright asks if he can try it on.

“I covet her watch,” he says. She refuses to give it to him, just as she, apparently, refused to play Winston Churchill’s wife in “Darkest Hour,” opening today.

“I offered her the role three times,” says Wright, who kept rewriting the part and followed her to Paris to convince her. She eventually agreed.

In the movie, she plays Clementine, the spirited wife of Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill, who, after just becoming Great Britain’s prime minister in the early days of World War II, must decide what kind of role to take in the global conflict.

Of her character, Scott Thomas says, “You do feel, I hope, that it’s a really important part of his development. It would be lost if she wasn’t there.”

Oldman’s performance at the film’s center, an almost total transformation, has created quite an Oscar buzz.

“What was striking was the difference between Gary Oldman in rehearsal and this man who was Winston Churchill,” says Scott Thomas, “and you’d forget that underneath Winston Churchill, was Gary. It was always surprising when Gary came out from underneath.”

Wright describes Oldman as excited to be on set, and eager to perform.

“When he wasn’t in the middle of a take, when he was on set in costume and makeup, he became this third person, who was this actor who was playing Winston Churchill,” Wright says. “He was different, much more chatty than Gary.”

Oldman’s transformation is so complete, his makeup so detailed, that Wright dares several close-ups on Churchill during the film.

“Amazingly, I just found I could,” he says. “There is no post visual effects or digital work on his makeup at all. The level of detail that Kazuhiro Tsuji achieved was extraordinary.”

“Darkest Hour” is largely an interior film, mostly taking place in 1940 during the evacuation in Dunkirk, which was the subject of two other films this year: “Their Finest,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”

Wright, who already had done his own version of the events in a memorable scene in his Oscar-nominated “Atonement,” says he decided not to include scenes set on the beach.

Defending his choice, he says, “People think something is cinematic if it’s got lots of wide landscapes. But to me, the relationship between two images, even if they’re close-ups, can be just as cinematic.”

A crucial addition to “Darkest Hour” is the character of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s long-suffering secretary (played by Lily James); in one compelling scene, she’s cut in, frantically typing a speech, as Churchill delivers it.

“I just wanted to make sure that there was a character who was kind of the normal person’s eyes and ears as we entered into this world,” Wright says, adding with a smile, “Also, I just couldn’t face 13 weeks of only men.”

IF YOU GO
Darkest Hour
Starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Joe Wright
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 5 minutes

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