Winston Churchill is one of the most charismatic figures in British history, as greatly admired for his passionate, patriotic speeches as he's renowned for his "V for Victory" salute and cigar-toting, chain-smoking penchant. But there's another side to Churchill, one that's largely been overlooked, until now, with Kiwi writer Anthony McCarten - who previously penned The Theory of Everything – shining the spotlight on Churchill's character and his endeavours in Darkest Hour.

"Not being British, I wasn't overly burdened by the myth of Winston Churchill and I came to it kind of fresh," McCarten says intently. "I thought 'I'll dive into the research and let the facts lead where they may.' But when I dived in I found a man who, in May 1940, was changing his position by the day and sometimes by the hour, during an incredibly tense moment in world history. That flies in the face of the person usually presented to us and that dichotomy really interested me. So, I wanted to show that new Churchill – the one who was full of uncertainty and self-doubt."

New Zealand screen writer Anthony McCarten penned Darkest Hour.
New Zealand screen writer Anthony McCarten penned Darkest Hour.

Consequently, McCarten's expose in Darkest Hour ensures a very different, diffident portrayal of Churchill from the pugnacious caricature regaled in history books. Instead, he's cast as cautious, vacillating and hesitant, at first toying with the idea of a peace treaty with Hitler, to avert Britain's annihilation, then changing tack and bullishly standing up to him.

"Essentially, our movie is about whether Winston will assent to his colleagues and do a peace deal with Hitler. That's the central question in this," McCarten says. "But despite the importance of that decision, the period we focus on in this movie warrants only about two lines in Winston's huge retelling of the Second World War. That's because he airbrushed out a lot of facts about his life - including this, as he clearly didn't see it as one of his finest hours and didn't want to be remembered as a ditherer.

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"But the minutes of the War Cabinet meetings in the bunker, under Whitehall, reveal a much more interesting and fragile Winston than has previously been allowed to be shown," he adds. "That image of Churchill was one that really intrigued me."

It's a depiction that also intrigued Gary Oldman, who jumped at the chance to play Churchill in Darkest Hour, despite turning down the same role in an earlier film.

"The other film just wasn't the right fit," he says, shrugging dismissively. "But this was different: when this came along I thought; 'Oh wow, now this is more interesting,' because the script was exciting and laced with humour. Also, it had Joe Wright as the director, so all the pieces just fitted together.

"It's weird though because I remember being in London years ago and standing on a balcony, overlooking Downing St and a colleague said to me: 'You should play Churchill ... ' I just looked at him and laughed my head off at the thought," Oldman recalls.

 Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

"But then this came along and what a gift it is: to play this man, to stand in that room and say those words he's so famous for was incredible," he adds. "At the end of the day, I couldn't give up the opportunity of standing there and saying; 'Blood, toil, tears and sweat ...' It was also good to do the hero thing, to play the good guy after playing so many villains and gangsters."

Despite his fervour, Oldman admits that he initially had doubts about whether he could portray one of the most iconic figures in history. In fact, he contemplated turning down the role.

"He's one of the most famous men ever, so I was terrified of playing him," Oldman says, shaking his head. "It was also a huge leap of faith because he's this big, robust man whom I don't look or sound anything like."

The prospect of writing about Churchill proved to be equally terrifying for McCarten, who had juggled with – and dismissed - the idea of for nearly a decade.

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"Yeah, I first had the idea for this film about 10 years ago and started writing it six years ago," McCarten says. "It was a tale I just couldn't let go of, a real passion project."

"But a part of me was daunted by the magnitude of writing words that were worthy of Winston and then commanding someone to act out those words, so I kept putting it on the back-burner."

McCarten admits it may very well have stayed there had it not been for a chance encounter with a friend to celebrate the success of his breakthrough film The Theory of Everything, the award-winning biopic of Stephen Hawking's life.

"I was having a beer with a friend in a country pub four years ago and he asked me what I was doing next, after The Theory of Everything," recounts McCarten, smiling. "I told him my first idea and he wasn't very impressed. So, I told him my second idea and he just shook his head. Then I mentioned the Churchill film and he said; 'That's the one you should do, that would be good ... '"

Anthony McCarten and the cast of Darkest Hour.
Anthony McCarten and the cast of Darkest Hour.

So that's what McCarten did and the rest is history, with Darkest Hour a compelling, beautifully crafted and emotive retelling of the first few months of World War II, up to the evacuation of Britain's beleaguered Expedition Force at Dunkirk.

Equally compelling is Oldman's commanding performance as Churchill, especially his famous, rousing speeches in the House of Commons. It's a tour de force portrayal which has already nabbed him the Golden Globe for best actor.

"The Golden Globe is very nice," says Oldman, grinning with unbridled delight. "They've basically ignored me for 30 years, so it's good to finally get some recognition. The film's been received really well too, so that's great."

McCarten is equally pleased with the reaction and recognition Darkest Hour has received and the prospect of Oldman possibly adding an Oscar to his Golden Globe accolade, just as Eddie Redmayne did with his compelling performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

"If Gary [Oldman] goes all the way, I will have written roles, back to back, that have carried actors to the highest point," says McCarten. "From that I take a great deal of encouragement and reassurance because my job is to give actors the raw material to do their best work, so when that's recognised, it's lovely."

"You know, at the centre of this movie is the proposition that words do make a difference," he concludes. "I've devoted my life to that proposition as most writers have – just like Winston Churchill did.

"His life was a complete celebration of that proposition: he not only changed the world, he changed human history with his words. So, if this film can do that in some small way too, that's all I can ask for."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten
What: Darkest Hour
When: In cinemas today