Two British Second World War dramas are among the leading contenders for Academy Awards this year. Dunkirk, about the 1940 evacuation of British troops from France, received eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Christopher Nolan. The Darkest Hour, showing Winston Churchill becoming Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, has six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Gary Oldman.
A third British movie about the Second World War, Churchill, released in June, offers a portrait of Winston Churchill’s doubts and disagreements with his officers and allies in the run-up to the 1944 Normandy invasion. Brian Cox was superb in the title role, but 2017 was a tough year to pit the failing, war-worn Churchill against the fresh, inspirational orator who rallied his countrymen against Nazi tyranny.
In his review of The Darkest Hour, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote: “Just as Britain negotiates its inglorious retreat from Europe, and our political classes prepare to ratify the chaotic abandonment of a union intended to prevent another war, there seems to be a renewed appetite for movies about 1940…”
Bradshaw asked the film’s producers if they recognized the relevance of their cinematic Churchill to current events. They told him they had planned their movie long before the Brexit vote. But the zeitgeist often takes a while to incubate artistic and political phenomena before bearing fruit. An abiding ambivalence, both toward Winston Churchill and membership in the European Union, have long simmered in the British psyche.
The UK officially joined what was then the European Communities (EC) on January 1, 1973. In 1975 the country held its first referendum about whether to leave. Various political parties – Labour, the Referendum Party, UKIP – have flirted with defection from the EU over the decades, without success, until 2016. With Brexit now imminent, the country seems to be suffering a sense of leavers’ remorse. But both of the award-nominated World War Two films offer reassurance that the UK can and will prosper in its new circumstances, on its own.
Churchill has always loomed larger than life for the British, even during his lifetime. A recent poll revealed that a quarter of British voters believe Churchill to be a mythical figure, even as a majority consider Sherlock Holmes historical. Churchill was mythic, as well as a flesh and blood human. He wrote history and enacted it. Both as an author and a public official he was a maker of myth.
Arguably the most eloquent world leader ever, Churchill wrote dozens of inspirational speeches, reams of incisive journalism and epic painstaking multi-volume cultural and military histories. In 1953, during his final term as Prime Minister, Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His country tended to embrace him in desperate times and turn him out of office when his overheated style exhausted them. At the moment the UK seems to be inviting him back for moral support.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an apt companion piece to The Darkest Hour, showing the actual blood, sweat, tears and death to which Churchill only alluded. And the chilly waters of the English Channel, which swallowed many a dead and wounded soldier. Dunkirk ends by quoting Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons that “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” But the survival of hundreds of thousands of soldiers feels like a victory in both films, a miracle of British resolve, despite the grim sacrifice of the Calais garrison (and four thousand troops) depicted briefly in The Darkest Hour.
As often in his movies (like Memento and Inception), Nolan manipulates our sense of time. Some critics have objected to his non-linear depiction of events in Dunkirk as confusing and unnecessary. But that sense of time as a cubist montage is more emotionally true to the experiences of the troops who live and re-live their near-death experiences, as vivid to them days later as they were in the moment.
The moral center of Nolan’s film is shared between an authority figure, Kenneth Branagh, as the Dunkirk port commander, and an “ordinary” civilian boat captain, Mark Rylance. Better than anyone else, Branagh understands the overwhelming odds against a successful evacuation but perseveres in spite of one heart-breaking disaster after another. Bearing witness is part of his responsibility and he does not shirk. Nor does he succumb, as do others under tension, to the parochial divisions among the troops. He remains behind the British to shepherd the French soldiers to safety too, despite the growing risk.
Rylance is a no-nonsense yachtsman with an idealized sense of quiet British competence and duty. He has already lost one son in the war, but pitches in to do his bit, with his second son, to rescue as many troops as possible. Branagh and Rylance embody British resolve, the stiff upper lip on steroids, getting on with what must be done, even if they must go it alone. In this way Nolan’s film also offers a reassuring view of Brexit, in the mode of Rosie the Riveter: We Can Do It!
Political commentator Andrew Rawnsley thought Darkest Hour’s portrayal of Churchill struck British audiences so strongly because “It is our misfortune to be passing through a period when the worst sort of leader uses passion in the service of malevolence…” and we “pine for politicians who aspire to do more with language than marshal banalities, incite division and rouse nastiness.”
Of course, in Churchill’s much-admired “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech, he ends by saying that even if the worst were to happen, leaving England “subjugated and starving,” that “the New World, with all its power and might” would step forth “to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” But as everyone must realize now, given the Trump White House, there is little hope of any such deus ex America coming to the rescue of the UK or even itself.