Hot off the box-office and critical success of Baby Driver, British actress Lily James now stars in Focus Features’ Oscar-nominated historical drama Darkest Hour (now showing exclusive at Ayala Malls Cinemas).
Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and starring Oscar Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour is the dramatic and inspiring story of four weeks in 1940 during which Winston Churchill’s courage to lead changed the course of world history.
Responding to what she saw as a “powerful story of [British] history, of everyone’s history, that we should remember and reflect on,” James joined the Darkest Hour troupe to portray the character of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s personal secretary.
James was glad to be “doing a film where I’m not playing a love interest, and not about romance. But there is a beautiful bond that develops between Churchill and Elizabeth.”
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten had taken inspiration from the real-life Elizabeth, who published memoirs detailing her years with Churchill under her married name Elizabeth Nel.
McCarten scripted the character to afford the audience a more intimate ringside view of a man whose world was by necessity far removed from the everyday, and Wright carried this motif over to filming the scenes of secretary and employer together.
“Elizabeth is like the eyes of our movie,” explains Wright. “I wanted no blockage between Lily and the audience. Her point of view on the story is an accessible one and leads into what for me is an important aspect of this story: Winston’s disconnection with, and then restored and strengthened connection to, the British people.
“To an extent, he lived in a fairly rarefied environment. In a time when true leadership was essential, he had to step out of his bubble and connect with the man and lady in the street. Only by making contact with ordinary people and hearing their concerns could he best understand the repercussions, the effects of the enormous decisions that he was making.”
James reports, “I loved reading Elizabeth’s autobiography. She knew she had a job to do, and a fighting spirit. Her book was just so full of admiration and you can see that she really loved Churchill, as did I think all his inner circle of staff; he was incredibly hard and strict and wanted things how he wanted them, but he had this spirit of generosity and this incredible wit and humor.
“I would barely see him not in full as Churchill; Gary Oldman is so bold and he was really kind to me, as one actor to another.”
All through filming, James kept specific details in mind, particularly how “Elizabeth had to follow him around; even in his car, she would be there with her notepad or typing. I took a few months and learned to type professionally on a vintage typewriter.
“Basically, Elizabeth was on duty at any hour and I had to put myself in the mindset of being a young girl in her early twenties in such close proximity to a genius, working on speeches and telegrams that would change the course of our future.”
“Lily has a naturally inquisitive way about her but she also shows Elizabeth’s innocence and how she forged loyalty to Churchill,” director Joe Wright asserts. “The real Elizabeth wrote about how tough he was to work with but how inspiring he was and how it was the greatest time in her life, and Lily conveying that enhances the story we are telling.”