Film Review: Darkest Hour

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If you don’t already know about my love for history and all things World War II please refer to my review of Dunkirk and my ode to Mrs Gold, my gem of a high school history teacher. Everyone deserved a Mrs Gold. Darkest Hour is a wonderful companion to Dunkirk. Although it is not about the evacuation of the troops stranded on the beaches in France, it does cover what was happening politically in London while the battle was being fought in Christopher Nolan’s land, sea and air visual masterpiece (even if it was somewhat lacking in storyline). Darkest Hour kicks-off straight into action with the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and the appointment of Winston Churchill as the new Prime Minister. He was no one’s first choice. Both Chamberlain and King George VI wanted Lord Halifax, but he turned down the position, feeling Churchill would be a more suitable war leader, and likely feeling as though he could take over if Churchill failed. There is no doubt they were handing over a country in a complete shambles.


Addressing Parliament Large

Almost immediately Churchill is under pressure with almost the entire British Expeditionary Force in danger of being wiped out or taken prisoner in Dunkirk. Furthermore, the British forces will suffer major material losses on the ground even if they can evacuate, having to leave behind tanks, huge supplies of ammunition, guns, motorcycles and cars. They have a small force of 4000 men stationed at Calais, that Churchill immediately decides to put into action to try and buy the men in Dunkirk more time. While he desperately tries to come up with a miracle to rescue the 300 000 men stranded on the beaches in France, even calling in a favour to American President FDR whose hands are tied by peace treaties, pressure mounts on him to engage in peace negotiations with Hitler, using Italian president Mussolini as a mediator.

Dunkirk

The film is wonderfully orchestrated, largely filmed in the War Room, you almost feel the claustrophobia. Although we the audience have the value of hindsight I found myself yelling at Lord Halifax, who was really pushing the issue of peace talks. How naïve can a person be? Had they learned nothing from Czechoslovakia, and then Poland, followed by Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, and now France. Did he honestly believe that Hitler, in a position of such strategic strength would give them terms that left them with any amount of sovereignty? He would have had the Swastika flying over Buckingham Palace before the sun rose. And as usual, Churchill seemed to be the only one to realise this. As he yells as them: “When will the lesson be learnt? When will the lesson be learnt? How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased, given privileges; before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

With no support in the War Room, Churchill turns to the people. Ditching his usual taxi ride, he decides to take the London Underground for the first time in his life and he engages with his constituents. He gauges their opinions on how they would feel about surrendering to the Germans. The decision is unanimous. They would rather fight in the streets, to the death, with broomsticks if they had to, than surrender. Next, he goes to the Outer Cabinet and other members of Parliament. They also fully support him, should the worst come to the worst and the Germans invade, they will defend their small island rather than surrender. Later, when Churchill addresses the whole of Parliament with his infamous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, he even gets Chamberlain’s support and all thoughts of peace negotiations are forgotten. With the help of civilian vessels, such as fishermen’s boats, yachts and pleasure cruisers, 338,226 men escaped Dunkirk, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops. Churchill gets his Dunkirk miracle.

Ending

When it comes to History vs Hollywood, the embellishments are pretty easy to spot. Although I was pleasantly surprised to find out that he did have a very close relationship with his wife Clementine, especially as Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance was excellent. The majority of Lily James’s character Elizabeth Layton’s storyline was fictional as she only became Churchill’s secretary in May 1941. She also did not have a brother who died in France. Churchill was however well-known for being hard on his staff, so that part is accurate. The late-night phone call to President Roosevelt is also fictional as that phone line did not exist until 1943. However, Churchill did write a letter to FDR on the 15th of May asking for help. Churchill had been corresponding with Roosevelt since he had become First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939. The late-night visit from King George VI is also pure Hollywood; while Churchill and the King did grow to become close friends, it took a lot longer than a few short weeks. Similarly, Churchill’s ride on the London Underground is pure fiction. While Churchill did often disappear, and it is believed he went to mingle with the people of London, it is beyond extremely unlikely he would have ventured on such a journey at such a perilous time.

Clementine

As Gary Oldman said in an interview with Film 4, Winston Churchill knew all about branding before anyone even knew what the word meant. The distinctive Victorian era suits, the bow ties, the top hats, the cane, the cigar. Even the gait of his walk and the distinctive way he had of speaking. Televisions were not widely available in homes yet and photographs in newspapers only provided minimal insight. He needed to create an image, and that he did. He made sure that even if he arrived in the remotest village in the outskirts of his little island, the people would be in no doubt that they were in the presence of Winston Churchill. Even to this day, people the world over can coax up an image of Winston Churchill, probably somewhat resembling a bulldog, in a tuxedo of sorts, wearing a top hat, smoking a cigar. They probably have no idea what Teresa May looks like.

V for Victory

When I saw the trailer for Darkest Hour I was blown away. I was like, “Holy crap, they’ve risen him from the dead!” The make-up and prosthetics seemed unimaginable. It was like looking at Winston Churchill. It was like listening to Winston Churchill. I have loved Gary Oldman for a good many years. I praised jeepers when he was cast as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. I was livid when he lost out on the Oscar for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to an actor no one had ever heard of and has never heard of since – as so often happens. I was excited. This was his year. Everyone was saying it. The bookies will give you virtually nothing. He has the Oscar in the bag. They might as well give it to him now. But the trailer is only two minutes and twenty-one seconds long. The movie is two hours and five minutes long.

It absolutely breaks my heart to type this but… I have seen Helen Mirren be the Queen. I have seen Daniel Day Lewis be Abraham Lincoln. I have seen Joaquin Phoenix be Johnny Cash. It wasn’t long before the magic wore off and I was very aware that I was watching a man in a fat suit and prosthetics pretend to be Winston Churchill. And I was hearing Gary Oldman’s voice, not Winston Churchill’s. And it was very distracting. He was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But he wasn’t Winston Churchill. Too many great actors have won Oscars because they are great actors and they deserve to have that golden statue on their mantelpiece and I fear Gary Oldman is about to become one of them. I watched Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour on the same day. You only have to read my review of Phantom Thread to know I am not Daniel Day Lewis’s biggest fan, but if I am honest, he put in the better performance this year. He already has three Oscars, he doesn’t need another one. Like I said, it breaks my heart. I want Gary Oldman to be an Oscar Winner. Just not like this.

I don’t really know what else to say. It was a good movie. A good telling of a pivotal moment in history that ultimately shaped our world. If Halifax had taken over goodness only knows what we would be looking at today. It was a little bit too Hollywood here and there. The costumes were amazing. The make-up broke new ground. Gary Oldman was superb. If he hadn’t been playing such an iconic man… But he was.

Rating: 3/5

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Film Review: Dunkirk

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It’s a difficult thing to communicate that you find World War II extremely interesting without coming across as massively offensive. After all, what are the phrases that you usually use, “Oh my god, I love World War II!”. “World War II was the best!” “Wasn’t World War II just completely fascinating?” Probably not to all the millions of people who died during it – no! You have to choose your words carefully. I blame my high school history teacher. She was phenomenal. Her name was Mrs Gold and without again meaning to sound incredibly offensive, she was like a piece of history herself. I don’t ever remember taking notes in her class. I just remember listening. She spoke about Napoleon as though she were Josephine herself. When I visited Paris a few years ago, I knew I had to go to Versailles, and I swear I could hear her voice in my head giving me a personal tour of the Hall of Mirrors.

She told us extraordinary tales of Grigori Rasputin – a family friend of Tsar Nicholas II – who simply refused to die. But then she also told us the tragic story of the execution of the Russian Imperial Romanov family, including the Tsar’s five children, during the Russian Revolution. It was almost as though we were in the room with them. We experienced the highs of the roaring 20s and the lows of the Great Depression in that classroom and learnt all about how Roosevelt’s New Deal was going to fix it all. We learnt about how Stalin’s failed revolution was killing his own people and we learnt that no one really won the Vietnam War. We learned about Hitler’s rise to power and we grew to hate Neville Chamberlain as we watched his policy of appeasement unravel (oh the value of hindsight and all that). Credit to Mrs Gold, she was able to show us, through her vivid storytelling, that an ordinary person, just like you and me, very well might have supported Hitler in the early 1930s. He sure did give a rousing speech, and in that moment, there was very little sign of what was to come.

With a teacher like that, how can you not be passionate about the past? The good, the bad, the tragic and the truly gruesome and grisly? Because Mrs Gold didn’t just give us facts, she told us stories. She didn’t just tell us about the Battle of Dunkirk, she made us feel as though we had been there. By May 1940, Germany had successfully invaded The Netherlands and Belgium. By the 26th of May, German advances into France had pinned the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – some 400 000 men – and the French First Army in a corridor to the sea. They were flanked by two massive German armies and had no way out except across the sea. In a matter still debated to this day, on the 24th of May, Hitler gave a Halt Order, ordering his troops to halt their advances on the Allied troops in Dunkirk. Some believe this is because the terrain around Dunkirk was thought unsuitable for tanks and his advisors believed his land forces could be put to better use elsewhere. There is also the argument that the commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring, wanted the glory of destroying the forces at Dunkirk from the air. Whatever Hitler’s reasons, he was clearly confident the Allies were already doomed either way, but nonetheless, rescinded the Halt Order on the evening of the 26th of May. However, he had already given the Royal Navy enough time to co-ordinate an evacuation plan of British and Allied troops.

400 000 Men on the Beach

From the 26th of May – 4th of June 1940, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation). The docks at Dunkirk were too badly damaged to be used, but the East and West Moles (sea walls protecting the harbour entrance) were intact. The last of the British Army left on the 3rd of June, and at 10:50, Captain William Tennant – in charge of the operation – signalled home to say “Operation completed. Returning to Dover”. Churchill insisted on coming back for the French and the Royal Navy returned on the 4th of June, to rescue as many as possible of the French rear-guard. Over 26,000 French soldiers were evacuated on that last day, but between 30,000 and 40,000 more were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.

Boats used in the evacuation

I am somewhat saddened that this was not reflected at all in the movie. In reality, the entire evacuation at Dunkirk was only made possible by the fact that the French army held the perimeter around Dunkirk for long enough, buying time for the ships to evacuate. This 12th Infantry Division literally fought to the last minute on the 4th of June, protecting the evacuation, but unable to embark themselves. They were taken prisoner on the beach. Not one of them made the movie. There is only one French soldier in the entire movie. He pretends to be a British soldier so he can try and escape on one of the incoming boats. He even saves all the soldiers from drowning below deck when it is hit by a torpedo by opening the hatch from the outside. Yet when they find out he is French, they want to kill him. This seems a little fickle as Operation Dynamo – as the evacuation came to be known – rescued thousands of French soldiers. So, what’s one more? I felt this part of the storyline gave a really false impression of what the operation was all about. Yes, the young British soldiers were scared and wanted to save themselves first. But at the end of the day, Dunkirk was about saving all the Allies, not just the Brits. We didn’t need to see battle scenes on the perimeter but a one line mention of them would have been nice. I felt the movie massively undermined the role of the French to a disgraceful degree!

The men left behind

My love of history has always been about the stories, the people. That is what makes you connect with that moment in time. You don’t “love” World War II because of the horror and the brutality and “man’s inhumanity to man”. You “love” it because it showed what the human spirit can overcome under the most devastating of circumstances. You “love” it because it showed the unselfishness of people to come together and make immense sacrifices for the greater good at huge personal cost to themselves. And you “love” it because it showed that ultimately, good will triumph over evil. And sadly, for me, this is everything that Dunkirk lacked.

Apart from Mr Dawson and his two sons who make the journey on their pleasure boat to do their part and suffer a personal tragedy along the way, I made no personal connection with any other character. No one else has a story, hell most of them don’t even have names. If you scroll down the list of character names on IMDB it is littered with “French Soldier 1”, “Petty Officer 3”, “Stretcher Bearer”, “Lieutenant”, “Able Seaman”. Even characters with fairly significant speaking roles, played by well-known actors like those of Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy, I couldn’t have told you their names after a one hour and forty-six-minute movie. No one spoke about their family. No one had a wife or a child to get home to. There wasn’t even a hint of a spirit of comradery between the soldiers – except maybe between the two RAF pilots (apparently called Farrier and Collins). When I compare this to every other war movie I have ever seen, I am just left hollow in this respect.

Mr Dawson 2

I know I was spoilt by Mrs Gold, I know this. When she told us about Dunkirk we were on a ferry belonging to a young man from Glasgow. It had been passed down from his great-grandfather. He left a young wife at home with a baby on the way to sale to Dunkirk to bring those men home. She told us about Al Deere, a Spitfire pilot who shot down a German Dornier before being hit in his cooling system and having to crash land on the beach. A woman in a nearby café tended to a wound above his eye before he made his way to the moles to be boarded onto a ship. Soldiers hurled abuse at him, asking where the hell he’d been, feeling completely abandoned by the Airforce as most of the action had taken place out of sight of the beach. And she definitely would have told us about the French 150th Infantry Regiment who held off the encroaching German forces, making the whole thing possible.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is very pretty to watch. It is well edited. The sound mixing and editing are excellent. Visually it is clean. It must have been a bitch to direct. There are a lot of people in it and a lot going on, so kudos there. But as a story it is cold. A very heavily edited history lesson. There is very little to connect to. I “love” World War II but I didn’t love this very detached retelling of a pivotal part of it.

Rating: 2/5

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