Joe Wright’s ‘Darkest Hour’: Nearly Quitting Movies After ‘Pan,’ ‘Dunkirk’ Connections & More

When director Joe Wright, the filmmaker behind “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Hanna” and “Anna Karenina,” finished the movie “Pan,” and it was released into the world, he felt shattered. The expensive, big budget spectacle bombed at the box office and he wasn’t sure he’d go on.

‘Darkest Hour’: Gary Oldman Is Simply A Force Of Nature As Winston Churchill [Review]

“I had just made this $100 million flop. It was a dark, difficult time. I didn’t know if I was going to make any more movies,” he admitted. “I didn’t know that I wanted to make movies anymore, to be honest.”

In his period of personal crisis, he came upon a script that spoke to his moment of uncertainty — “Darkest Hour” by Anthony McCarten. The script details a crucial time during the early days of World War II, as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army encroached, and the fate of Western Europe hung in the balance. France was falling, Germany was advancing and it was up to the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decide how to respond: negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against terrible odds.

READ MORE: Gary Oldman And Joe Wright Shine Some ‘Darkest Hour’ Light At The Academy

“What struck me about the script is that was really self-doubt. But also about being dogged and mustering courage. I could relate. I think making a movie about self-doubt speaks for itself. There is no wisdom to be found without self-doubt,” he said about self-examination and navigating past. “Plus the script made me laugh a lot which surprised me and it made me cry. It was heroic in its own way. How do you find courage against all odds? Where does the tenacity come from? This obviously intrigued me.”

Wright was already considering, if considering anything at all, going back to basics and directing a much smaller scale film, and “Darkest Hour” fit the bill. Starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a transformative performance, literally and figuratively, “Darkest Hour” is a contained chamber drama, but it’s incredible tense and fast moving. Wright being the dynamic filmmaker he is, creates a nerve-wracking, propulsive drama even though much of it is men talking in room, weighing their limited options. Beyond Gary Oldman’s towering work, “Darkest Hour” stands out because of the immense sense of stress-inducing urgency Wright imbues it with.

Finding his Churchill was tough, but Wright then had the inspired idea to use Gary Oldman, despite the fact that actor looked nothing like the Prime Minister nor had his bulging, physique.I was [more] concerned about the physical similarities then I was about capturing the inner essence,” he stated. “So while Gary did have the same height and same eye color [laughs], size here was about essence of character. Gary’s already a shapeshifter and he immediately struck me as someone who had size and stature to his performances and could bring it to this performance.”

“Casting is the most important choice you can make in a film. So, you cast someone magnificent like Gary and then you worry about the rest later. It’s the essence that matters most,” Wright added.

Oldman would spend more than four hours per day in make-up and the results are staggeringly real, perhaps the best aging and physical transformation ever seen on screen (you can certainly lock up that Oscar category and throw it away until that evening; it belongs to “Darkest Hour”). The prosthetics, created by legendary makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, were worked on developed for five months. Tsuji had retired from Hollywood dedicating himself full time art sculpture, but he was convinced to come back and work on “Darkest Hour.” However, some of the early designs went too far.

“…it became finding a balance in transforming Gary into Churchill, but not losing Gary in all of the prosthetics,” he said. “We had versions where he had disappeared too far into make-up. We wanted to make sure, the soul of the performance would be there.” Incredibly, there’s only 12 digital shots in all the make-up, all of it just erasing wig lines. “There was no real digital trickery. That’s all Gary and prosthetics. Tsuji is one of my heroes.”

One thing that Wright hadn’t anticipated while developing the script was how similar works were in production. “The Crown” hadn’t hit— Winston Churchill and King George VI features prominently in both works—and of course neither had Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.”

In Wright’s film, as Germany invades France, the entire outgunned British army trapped on the shores and harbor of Dunkirk. Sitting ducks, Churchill has to decide whether to surrender and save the lives of 300,000-something young men, or somehow fight on. Known in history as the Miracle of Dunkirk, a hail mary decision was made to evacuate the stranded soldiers using a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats, many of them civilian. While Wright’s film is about the nail-biting decision making and politicking that has to be made on the eve of this military disaster, Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is essentially the story of that evacuation as its happening. It winds up being a perfect companion piece film. But Wright didn’t know the full extent of the movie and how it was told.

“I was extremely nervous and extremely relieved when I saw it about how little overlap there was,” he said, noting that “Churchill,” with Brian Cox had preceded his film too. The director waited to see “Dunkirk” until his film was finished. “I was worried, but relieved that Churchill wasn’t in it at all. It’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking. I love the magnificent minimalism of it. The way its self-contained and still very intimate. But yes, [‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘Dunkirk’] would make a nice double feature.”

Wright wasn’t attempting to make any political statements with the movie, but Brexit was on the mind of the English filmmaker, and he did find himself drawing parallels.

When being pressured to negotiate with Hitler, Churchill, had a “resistance to bigotry and hate and stood alone,” Wright said. With Brexit and nationalism in the air, the director asked himself, “What does good leadership look like? What does it look like to have conviction, while leading and harboring huge self-doubts. England couldn’t see the forest for the trees of what was happening in Europe. Churchill had vision and ultimately, he had the courage of his convictions. It was all inspiring stuff and fuel to keep going forward.”

“Darkest Hour” is in theater now in limited release.

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    Is this a first draft? The numerous errors made this article downright painful to read.

Greece’s Right Wing Women Step Up In Chilling Doc ‘Golden Dawn Girls’ [IDFA Review]

It could be the name of a seniors-only a capella group, but the chummy, sunny title is misleading. If “Golden Dawn Girls,” which premiered in the main competition at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), represents any celestial event, it might well be an eclipse. The film follows a brief moment in recent Greek political life during which, with the (almost exclusively male) leaders of the movement all imprisoned, the womenfolk of the nation’s far-right party, Golden Dawn, literally stepped up to the mic.

Hewing close to his three extraordinary subjects — a wife, a mother and a daughter — Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes, in his off-camera interlocutions and voiceover narration at times sounds overwhelmed, helpless to steer the rickety craft of his tenuous project through these treacherous, shark-infested waters. But ultimately the portrait he creates is equal parts illuminating, engrossing and, though pocked with moments of spiked humor, profoundly depressing, as it tracks the previously unthinkable rise and seemingly unstoppable spread of a toxic ideology through the land that first coined the term “democracy.”

The wife is called Eugenia — Jenny, for short. She is a telegenic blonde with the snappish savoir faire and hard eyes of a shrewd PR agent or a no-nonsense realtor. Her husband, Giorgos Germenis is an ex-black metal bassist and baker who was one of the 18 party members elected to Parliament in Golden Dawn’s popularity surge during the past five years. Through Jenny, Bustnes also gets access to Dafni, the striking, white-haired mother of Germenis’ fellow MP and Golden Dawn leading light Panagiotis Iliopoulos, and most crucially to Ourania, the animal-loving, Disney-fan daughter of the movement’s founder and leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who has a kind of tinpot-Hitler personality cult built up around himself.

When the men, along with other Golden Dawn luminaries, are detained on charges of illegal firearms possession, incitement to violence, race baiting and so on, these three women come to the forefront of the party, giving interviews, leading rallies, canvassing, all of which unfolds in eerily familiar iconography and rhetoric (torchlit marches, fake news etc). Different as they are, and operating at various levels of suspicion towards Bustnes and his team, they share an icily mistrustful media savviness, most notably an ability to deflect the director’s increasingly frazzled questioning, no matter how directly he tries to pin them down.

Their bluffs and evasions around the labels “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi” are a case in point: Dafni insists with asinine stubbornness that since Nazism was an historical German phenomenon, it cannot apply to modern Greece; psychology student Ourania examines a years-old photo of her father giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag and still refuses to be drawn on whether the term applies (“He’s adorable!” she coos at the picture, dimpling with fondness); and Jenny accounts for her husband’s “Sieg Heil” tattoo by implying he knew nothing of its connotations beyond “hail victory” and that he’d had it written in German rather than Greek “because he liked the font.”

In many ways, the obfuscations the women use when directly confronted (sometimes in a rather oddly lit interview set-up against a backdrop draped in flags and sinister shadows) are just as enlightening as the trickier moments Bustnes captures as he leaves his camera running after a take ends. While they occasionally drop their guard enough to let bald-faced fascist sentiments slip off-camera, the women give themselves plenty of rope in their on-camera segments too — Dafni, perhaps most of all. Once a socialist who believed in democracy and “all those beautiful things I later found were lies” she seems quite happy to be photographed coaching her grandchildren in racist ideology and the use of firearms, twists a philosophy of hate into a platitude about love and freely offers up a logic-defying rationale for her belief that, to resurrect an old Nazi favorite, the powerful governments of the world are all actually controlled by an international Jewish conspiracy.

For all three, the diplomatic doublespeak seems like a game they’re only half invested in, because, it gradually becomes clear, the bigotry, violence and ugliness of the party’s MO (a favorite chant: “Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!”) is not a source of shame. They’re proud of it, and the necessity of making these cursory attempts to cover that up is really just kind of tiresome for them.

Dafni, Jenny and Ourania are so adept at walking those lines, though, that there does come a juncture when a perverse sort of hope flares — not that these women would be any sort of moral bulwark against the excesses of their men, but simply that, having sniffed the heady air of personal power, they might refuse to relinquish it once the prisoners are back out, and the resulting tug-of-war could destabilize the party. But Bustnes, himself sounding weary with defeat, quashes any such suggestion:”As soon as the men were released I saw the women start to retreat” he says in voiceover.

The film ends much as it began, with one of the women, this time Ourania, refusing to be drawn on the subject of Nazism. “Why should I explain myself because you feel uncomfortable?” she asks Bustnes with an unreadable expression caught somewhere between scorn and pity. It’s that expression, impenetrable, unruffled and totally certain, on her youthful, 26-year-old face, that leaves us with little option but to despair, as it points to an absolutely unbridgeable chasm between the center and the far right that is only going to become more entrenched as the first generation of this movement (and others like it around the world) gives way to the second. So maybe an eclipse is the wrong comparison. The gripping but doleful “Golden Dawn Girls” reminds us that, depending on where you stand, a dawn can look like a sunset, and this one looks to be ushering in a very long night. [B+]