Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Darkest Hour (2017) vs Dunkirk (2017) & the Australian movie we need about the Abdication Crisis

Unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, current Oscar bait Darkest Hour (2017) barely made a ripple in U.K. movie going conversation - I can see why. It's just embarrassing, and easily the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. This is awful Oscar bait by numbers, as many have said, and despite some good acting work makes Netflix's The Crown look like an edgy masterpiece of popular history.

Lets get the history out of the way first. I'm sure there is some detail in which this movie is very accurate. (I've read the book on which this screenplay appears to be based - Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs). Dates and timings appear to be spot on along with, some, of what was said.

Beyond that.. What will immediately annoy history buffs is the first scene in the House of Commons, which dumbs down and paraphrases one of the most dramatic and consequential debates in the entire 400 year history of the House of Commons; The Norway Debate.

An entire, brilliant movie could one day be made just covering this debate, as it results directly in the removal of Chamberlain, the final renunciation of appeasement and the installation of Churchill. But Darkest Hour really is only interested in Churchill, and as he is not present for this debate we a given a brief caricature of events. Clement Attlee would serve as the (first) Deputy Prime Minister throughout World War II and would defeat Churchill in the 1945 election. The film off-handledly admits in several places that Churchill is only considered at all for Prime Minister in 1940, against the ruling party, because of pressure from Attlee and the rest of the opposition. Attlee seen in the opening first few minutes of Darkest Hour and then barely mentioned later.

The Norwegians and the Norwegian Campaign which prompted this debate are barely featured, as it would confuse the Nazis-charging-through-the-collapsing-French narrative. Darkest Hour is not alone in disregarding the Norwegian Campaign and this is common to nearly every movie covering the period. Since a large portion of the German fleet ends up on the bottom of Norwegian fjords as a result of this campaign, making the subsequent sea invasion of Britain a virtual impossibility, you would think it would get more attention. The Norwegians have not forgotten it.

This paragraph below shows another another potentially brilliant scene dumbed down and pushed aside by this movie, in favour of a cut down paraphrased scene at an airport. Did they refuse permission to shoot in Paris? Christoper Nolan was allowed to use half the French Navy to shoot Dunkirk..

(From wiki)

Churchill flew to Paris on 16 May. He immediately recognised the gravity of the situation when he observed that the French government was already burning its archives and was preparing for an evacuation of the capital. In a sombre meeting with the French commanders, Churchill asked General Gamelin, "Où est la masse de manoeuvre?" ["Where is the strategic reserve?"] that had saved Paris in the First World War. 
"Aucune" ["There is none"] Gamelin replied. After the war, Gamelin claimed his response was "There is no longer any."
Churchill later described hearing this as the single most shocking moment in his life. Churchill asked Gamelin where and when the general proposed to launch a counterattack against the flanks of the German bulge. 
Gamelin simply replied "inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of methods".

There is vast tragedy in the nation which beat the Germans at Verdun succumbing to the Germans of 1940 but (as usual with this kind of movie) we only seem to get French resignation without any nuance beyond that. Similarly, the possibility of talks with Mussolini's Italian fascists looms large over the later stages of this movie, could it not drag itself out of Churchill's bunker for one scene showing an actual Italian?

My frustration here really comes down to missed potential. What a great conspiracy story could be made of this - instead we have an increasingly laughable human interest drama with a political dimension.

Again as usual for this kind of movie it makes no mention of Commonwealth and Empire forces  (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, British India - not inconsiderable) which declared war alongside the home country almost immediately without reservation.

I'm heavily into movie scores at the minute, still going back to Jerry Goldsmith's forgotten epic score to The Blue Max.  Dario Marianelli's score to Darkest Hour.. I wish I could say it's forgettable but it actually distractedly melodramatic; managing to overdramatise some of the most dramatic moments of the last century is really some feat. Try listening to this next to Hans Zimmer's incredible score for Nolan's Dunkirk. You'd struggle to believe they were written in the same century. Darkest Hour's soundtrack belongs in an Ealing Studios movie.

I am not by the way an unabashed worshiper of Dunkirk (2017), it has major major issues on a historical level as well but as just a movie event it makes Darkest Hour look quite laughable.

This is the first Joe Wright film I’ve seen and I’ll avoid the rest. Every flashy CGI camera moment and directorial flourish you can imagine and then some. Without wanting to be too harsh this is the nearest British equivalent I can think of  to Micheal Bay’s execrable Pearl Harbor. Darkest Hour  even has a similar CGI shot showing a bomb dropping off a plane and followed down to the target. Oh and for added fakeness, the glimpse of CGI Little Ships against the CGI White Cliffs of Dover  must have had Nolan's cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema absolutely rolling around with laughter.

Darkest Hour's now infamous Churchill on the tube scene is every bit as Disney-embarrassing-ridiculous as you’ve been led to expect. At a pivotal point in the movie the Grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough decides to take a tube train, alone, to get a Vox Pop of working class opinion. By far the most believable detail in this scene is the British Caribbean gent in the hat. That I can believe. Beyond him - Is that Dick Van Dyke's chimney sweep and Mary Poppins in the background?

There is no scene in Marvel’s Captain America : First Avenger less believable than Darkest Hour's tube scene, and for all the previous acting special effects the movie never recovers, simmering just above Comic Strip Presents : Operation Dynamo.   You certainly will get more of an idea of the real 1940s Britain watching Supersizers Go Wartime.

The positives :  The cast is obviously very good. I'm a massive fan of Gary Oldman, and just about everyone else  here, so writing this has not been easy. I’d rather watch a whole movie about Kristin Scott Thomas's Lady Churchill, or even Stephen Dillane's Halifax, than go into this subject matter again.
Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic again as George VI. With Guy Pearce's magnificent cameo as Edward VIII (and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue) in The King's Speech , can we hope the Australian film industry is just a step away from the movie about the pivotal Abdication Crisis that we deserve? They'll push Kate Blanchett or Naomi Watts as Wallace Simpson but give Margot Robbie a go - she deserves it. (I recently saw I, Tonya three times in the space of a week.)
Perhaps let Gary Oldman redeem himself as Stanley Baldwin.
For those not aware of the Abdication Crisis featured briefly in The King's Speech , Stanley Baldwin is the British Prime Minister who essentially sacks the Head of State when members of his family are found to be colluding with a hostile foreign power. I would say this is probably a more relevant story right now than yet another bloody movie about Winston Churchill.

As someone with an education, not living in an old people's home, I'm probably the wrong demographic for Darkest Hour. It's a cosy Xmas drawing room drama written for Hollywood grandparents and uncomplaining Baby Boomers,  and such it's an almost diametric opposite to Nolan's Dunkirk which for all its issues does at least put to put you on the beaches and challenges your conceptions of storytelling.

Nolan's movie is a trans-national, inspirational story about survival which notably includes the French and the Dutch and is so aware of war mongering nonsense since 1945 it only refers to the Germans as 'The Enemy'. By contrast Darkest Hour is a laughably told, inward looking hagiography of a great man (and forgotten internationalist) already unfairly idolised by some of the most ignorant, backward looking people on Earth.

I saw the incredible Russian anti-war film Come and See (1985) the same day I saw Darkest Hour, which seems to exist in a different universe. Come and See has some valuable lessons in how to dig up the past.

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