Due to what has to be pure serendipity, two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture this year cover the same few days in May, 1940: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which came out earlier this year, and Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, recently released. Together, the two movies make a compelling case for those few days as one of the great turning points in history. The appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the decision to resist Hitler at all costs even as France and the rest of Europe went up in flames, and the desperate gamble of sending pleasure craft and fishing boats from England to Dunkirk to evacuate Britain’s last 300,000 professionally trained soldiers, combined to make possible the UK’s survival as a nation, as the last bastion of democratic decency left in a world gone mad. One shudders to think of the cost of it had any of those gambles failed.
Essentially, Dunkirk takes a micro-narrative approach to filmmaking, by focusing on a few individual stories within the larger story; a pilot, fighting off Luftwaffe planes trying to sink rescue vessels, a single soldier trying to find his way to freedom, and an ordinary citizen captaining a boat on its way to the rescue. It’s an extraordinary movie, not least because of Nolan’s compression of time. He manages to tell three stories simultaneously, one describing events that lasted an hour, one, a day, and one, a week. And the stakes, of course, are extraordarily high. 300, 000 men will almost certainly die if not evacuated.
And yet, the stakes in Darkest Hour are higher still. It’s one of those movies about a single moment, a movie about a single character making a single, momentous decision, with everything else in the movie subordinated to that decision. (The Post is structurally similar, though of course, about a different time and set of issues). The decision, in this case, is whether Winston Churchill (astonishingly rendered by Gary Oldman), with the rest of Europe under Hitler subjugation, will seek peace terms in order to save those 300,000 lives. Churchill’s instincts are to radically mistrust Adolf Hitler. (Those instincts, of course, are entirely correct). But essentially his entire war cabinet is lined up against him. Most especially, the man who probably would have been a more sensible choice for Prime Minister, Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), adamantly insists that peace must be pursued. And what cost? Halifax, in the movie, doesn’t seem to care.
The film’s depiction of Halifax is, in fact, something of a distortion of history. Halifax was appalled by Kristalnacht, opposed (in a measured, quiet way), to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and willing to commit British forces to defend Poland. His peace overtures to Germany were based on his feeling that it was the only way out of an impossible situation. By June of 1940, he had fully committed to the war effort, and when appointed as ambassador to the United States, served with great distinction and success.
But this is a Hollywood biopic, and as such, somewhat uninterested in nuance. It’s about Churchill, depicted here as uncertain of his path, but also as unequivocally heroic. Oh, sure, he can be rude to the help, faltering in his speech, and his eating and drinking habits were undeniably unhealthy. But he saw clearly the danger posed by Hitler. The problem is, so did everyone else, and the question was, what to do it about it. As it turned out, Churchill’s rather harebrained scheme of sending hundreds of small civilian boats to rescue the soldiers at Dunkirk succeeded far beyond any reasonable expectation. Earlier in his career, during WWI, his far more strategically justifiable Gallipoli campaign, had failed more catastrophically than it probably should have. Luck evens out over time.
Wright’s filmmaking is inventive, especially his use of long subjective angle tracking shots, as we see the British populace from Churchill’s p.o.v. from his car. The camera gets less busy, of course, in all the scenes with Churchill, but then it’s got Oldman to keep our attention. I thought Kristin Scott Thomas was underutilized in the thankless role of Churchill’s wife, Clemmie. More successful was the film’s depiction of Churchill’s favorite typist, Miss Layton (wonderfully played by Lili James). Initially intimidated by his gruffness, she became a reliable associate and cheering section.
Still, it’s a fine film, featuring a wonderful performance, and I’m looking forward, on Oscar night, to seeing Oldman earn his reward. And this movie, combined with Dunkirk, serve the admirable purpose of telling audiences in 2018 something about a particularly crucial era in history. Well done indeed, to everyone involved with it.