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Thursday 18 October 2018

Kristin gets to the heart of Clemmie

Kristin Scott Thomas understands what it is to feel divided. Which is why she is perfect for the role of Churchill's wife

Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman as Clementine and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman as Clementine and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour
Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine in Darkest Hour

Julia Molony

It wasn't the first time Kristin Scott Thomas had been asked to play Clemmie Churchill - the fiercely bright, troubled and tempestuous wife of Britain's most revered leader, Winston Churchill.

She had been asked to portray Clemmie several times before, though she's not sure why. "I suppose I've often played sort of upper-class people," she says. "I don't know."

This time, however, it was Joe Wright who was asking. The director of Atonement and purveyor of lavish naturalistic British period pieces was helming Darkest Hour, a new project about Churchill's first months in office and his battle to convince his cabinet to mobilise against the Nazis.

Perhaps it was the intelligence and the complexity that Scott Thomas brings to her roles which convinced him she'd be right for it. "I figured that a woman who was married to Winston Churchill had to be able to give as good as she got," Scott Thomas says, "and to be a highly intelligent individual to be able to bear him, basically, and to be able to remain interesting to him. That was the logical conclusion I came to."

Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine in Darkest Hour
Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine in Darkest Hour

And though she did originally say no, even to Joe Wright, she eventually allowed herself to be persuaded to take on the part. On one condition. That the script be redrafted to round out the character of Clemmie.

"When I first read the script, I did say no," she says. "And the reason I said no was because we didn't know about the character, we learnt nothing about this character. And it is extraordinary to be married to a man who is a leader of the world. And that particular leader, who got us out of the terrible situation. So who is this woman who is his wife, his confidante, his co-reader, is part of his engine, his motor? She's so intricately woven into his life. Who is this woman? And actually in the first draft that I read, there weren't any clues as to who she was."

On Scott Thomas's insistence, the script was changed. "They adjusted things that already existed so we could get a better picture of Clementine."

Despite the snow white wig that Scott Thomas has to wear for the role, she still manages to imbue the part with a hint of leonine sexuality. It is apparent in her graceful movements and the glove-like fit of her exquisite clothes. But this, she says, is very true to the woman Clemmie was.

"There's always something - you have to be able to connect to characters on a personal level," she tells me. "Even the most obscure thing, a tiny little spark of a connection is important. Certainly with a character as rich as this one, there are certainly lots of things you can be intrigued by and recognise and empathise with. The things that perhaps were the most fun to play with as far as the character is concerned were to do with her physicality. She was much taller than Winston, she was gangly, but she was incredibly elegant and always absolutely impeccable. She was obsessed, apparently, with being well turned out."

Scott Thomas herself shares a kind of outsider status with the woman she portrays. Though Clementine Churchill's life brought her to the very heart of the British establishment, her early life was bohemian and unconventional. "I find her to be absolutely fascinating," Scott Thomas says.

"Coming from quite a difficult beginning - she was the daughter of a divorcee in the 1900s - can't have been easy. And they were broke and so they had to move to Dieppe where they lived off her mother's earnings at the gambling table, which must have been extremely uncomfortable. She lived in fear of poverty, a dread of poverty... She'd been taken out of school very young because her father didn't believe that girls needed an education, and yet she was clever enough to be able to hold conversations with these brilliant men. Churchill wasn't the only brilliant man. She'd been engaged to some other people before, but she was a bolter.

"Unconventional to the core, she had such an aura about her that people still talk about it to this day - people who met her never forgot her. Even small children."

Perhaps Scott Thomas relates to this because in her own way, she too has always lived a restless, rootless sort of life. Like Clemmie, she spent formative years in France. The difference being that Scott Thomas then made France her adopted country. She was born in Cornwall and grew up there. She lost her father, a pilot, in an aeroplane crash when she was small. At the age of 18, she moved to Paris to be an au-pair, and from that moment on was to be forever divided - torn between two countries. She married a French gynaecologist and the couple had three children who were raised in Paris, but she has always maintained an active career on both sides of the channel, playing roles in both French and English. In 2005, she got divorced and in 2015, talked of her desire to return to London. These days, she seems rather to be in a state of permanent confusion about where home is.

"I wish I could just regroup and glue it all together," she told me when I interviewed her two years ago. "The conflict between theatre and film, conflict between countries, conflict between the English language and French language. I'm split down the middle and I think I've just got to go with it."

A few years ago, she declared that after a career spanning more than three decades, she was finished with film. "I'm bored by it," she said, "so I'm stopping." Happily for her fans, that retirement hasn't come to pass. But perhaps that is partly because she's sought out new ways of keeping things interesting. Having focused mainly on theatre work for the last few years, she's now moving into directing. It's not, she jokes, exactly a leap - but more of "a drag. It's very, very tricky". Yet, it seems stepping behind the camera is a move that has reinvigorated her creative spark. "I've often thought about doing it," she says. For her first project, she's taking on The Sea Change, a screen adaptation of the novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, about a marriage in crisis - a theme about which Scott Thomas knows a thing or two herself. "The Sea Change asks a question I have been trying to answer in many of my performances," she told The Guardian. "what are the reasons for the thrills and difficulties of love? I want to make a film that has depth, humour and beauty." Exactly, then, the kind of meaty film that her fans already know and love her for.

Darkest Hour will be released in cinemas on January 12

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