For director Joe Wright, art is resistance. In his latest film, “Darkest Hour,” Winston Churchill represents a force of opposition in the face of apathy, and Wright believes everyone could heed a few lessons from such a man. “I want [viewers] to leave the theater with the feeling inspired to continue to resist the wave of political hatred, bigotry, the Nazism that we so unfortunately see rising in societies across the globe.”
“Darkest Hour” focuses on the roughly four-week period that charted the rise of Winston Churchill from underdog prime minister to the soaring leader of hope against the Nazi regime. Throughout the film Churchill struggles to unite the Parliament, the political opposition and the people of Britain, and it is only through his dedication to to that unity, to that resistance, that Britain can ever hope to withstand Hitler’s impending campaign. Wright keenly understands the monumental task Churchill faced, and it was a conscious choice to frame “Darkest Hour” as the story of an unlikely success. “It’s important to remember and tell stories about someone like Churchill, who made many, many mistakes throughout his life. He opposed the women’s suffrage movement. He opposed Indian independence … and yet, in this moment he was right about one thing, and that was to resist Nazism, and he fought tooth and nail to see that.” For Wright, Churchill is a living testament to both the human potential for both fallibility and for greatness, and that what defines us most is the choice we make when we’re caught between the two.
With a penchant for dry wit and a wry, knowing smile, Joe Wright is perhaps the most candid Brit you’ll find for conversation. His passion for his craft is immense, and it imbues every word he utters. For Wright, his art is his drive. “I still am trying to achieve the sublime, and I’m not sure I ever will. But that’s okay, because it’s the attempt that matters.” But that idealistic passion does not obscure Wright’s sensibility, and he keeps a dose of realism close by at all times. “Fear drives me too. The biggest fear is never making anything that is ever of any real value or worth lastingly.” Wright finds art in the resistance of stagnation, in the constant drive to be better than what has been done before.
In that drive for the permanent, Wright often looks to the past for answers. He’s known for crafting worlds of lost times in films like “Pride & Prejudice” and Oscar Best Picture winner “Atonement,” inviting viewers into a different era that still resonates in the present. “By making work that is set in the past, or it could be the future, I am able to somehow explore my experience of life uncluttered by contemporary reality.” To Wright, the past holds a window into truths that the ordinary present just can’t convey. “Fairy tales, as a kid — they’re not fact but they’re true. They have an emotional, psychological truth. Period pieces are like fairy tales, you strip it all away, and you see some sort of emotional truth, some sort of spiritual truth.” Wright recognizes that to find what is lasting, one must sometimes look for truth in a time beyond the present.
Wright’s almost childlike eye for past wonders doesn’t dilute his visions for the future; instead it serves as a guide to what can help shape the resistance of the present. “I wouldn’t want to live in the past, but I like to make work about the past. I wouldn’t like to live in a fairytale … but I can use those stories to help express and help learn about my interior life and how to relate my interior life to the exterior world.” There’s power in embracing the introspective, and Wright wields that ability like a master swordsman to continue to make art that speaks to the injustices that still affect us today.
Pointedly, Wright has been outspoken against the systemic issues of gender that plague not only Hollywood, but also the world-at-large. He especially doesn’t mince words when it comes to the recent slew of allegations against powerful men of Hollywood like Harvey Weinstein, saying, “I’m naturally horrified when I hear these things. I’ve never worked with any of those that have been accused of these terrible crimes, and I’ve generally worked with really good, decent people.” When it comes to Weinstein specifically, Wright has no qualms about expressing his discontent. “Harvey Weinstein used to try to get me to make films for him. And I always avoided him like the plague because I didn’t like his business practices … and so I didn’t want to have that experience. And now I’m even more glad that I never did that.”
But Wright doesn’t see the issues of gender as being a uniquely Hollywood sin, instead viewing it as an issue that is systemic in our culture. “[Sexism is] endemic throughout society. It’s not just about the film industry; I’m sure it’s about the finance industry, even the scientific industry, the industry industry.” Where Wright sees the film industry’s place in the tangled mess of sexism is actually as a spear-header of revolution. “I think the film industry will hopefully lead the way in some kind of reformation of the gender politics… The film industry has a history of leading society in terms of its social policies and political policies, so I hope that that continues.”
“I think people in the film industry are pretty good people generally. I think there are a few very, very rotten apples. But I think that generally people in our industry are there because they are sensitive and thoughtful individuals, and what we need are sensitive and thoughtful individuals like that.”
Ultimately, Wright sees resistance as a form of art, and that’s why he pursues projects like “Darkest Hour.” Specifically, World War II-era Britain attains almost a mythical quality to Wright. “It’s a time when there was a very clear, definite enemy. And how people responded to that enemy is what interests me. Some people crumbled, some were cowards. Others stood up and resisted. And I find that there’s some clarity to it.” That clarity, that push of defiance is what makes Churchill and “Darkest Hour” so special. “[Churchill’s] an image of resistance to the appeasement of tyranny, of tyrants.”
For Wright, that resistance will never stop.
“Darkest Hour” will be in theaters everywhere Nov. 22.
Contact Zak Sharif at zsharif ‘at’ stanford.edu.