Produced by Perfect World Pictures
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Joe Wright
Distributed by Focus Features
The Shape of Water
Produced by Scott Rudin Productions
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Toward the end of Darkest Hour, we watch Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill board a train car on the London Underground and begin talking to passengers, all of whom rather wondrously recognize him. With a twinkle in his eye, he asks their advice. It’s 1940 and Parliament’s in a snit about Hitler. Should England enter into negotiations with Germany to gain peace? “Never,” comes the answer from one and all, including a beautiful blonde girl of nine shown in strategic close-up so we can see her darling determination.
This, of course, is the answer Churchill wanted, as did screenwriter Anthony McCarten. It’s a knockdown crowd-pleaser. So is the moment the great man asks a young mother the age of the infant boy sitting on her lap. “Eight months, sir. He looks like you.” To which Churchill responds, “Madam, all babies look like me.” How’s that for an endearing moment? I can testify to the truth of Churchill’s observation. When I was less than one, my uncles, I am reliably told, would put an unlit cigar in my fist, sit me on the dining-room table, and address me as Sir Winston. It was a great joke, albeit one with a racial undercurrent. In many dominions of the empire—India, Jamaica, Hong Kong—very few babies, equipped with a cigar or not, could be said to resemble Sir Winston. Still, for human interest, the scene is hard to resist. But, of course, it’s baloney. Churchill rode the underground only once, and this was not the time. McCarten has admitted to inventing the scene. Here and elsewhere he has done all he can to make a lovable codger of Churchill. Doing so, he and director Joe Wright have collaborated in a disgusting work of hagiography. Why is it disgusting? Because the public needs to know the truth about the man who helped promote a war that killed over 85 million people and gave the Soviet Union its chance to add another 20-30 million lives onto the altar of an ideology even more monstrous than Hitler’s. This is the point that Pat Buchanan makes in Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War,” and it’s generally obscured in contemporary discussions of the period. Buchanan reasons that Hitler would not have lasted for long. There were too many powerful, practical-minded Germans who found his ideological ravings abhorrent and were waiting for their chance to topple his regime. Would this have happened? Obviously, there’s no way of knowing.
Though they differed on most things, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell agreed with Churchill: War would have to be waged. Once Hitler and Stalin entered into their 1938 Nonaggression Pact, negotiation was out of the question. Waugh, who earlier had been uncertain about how to respond to events, made up his mind instantly. This was “the modern age in arms,” he wrote both in his diary and in his novel Men at Arms (1952), and though nearing 40, he decided more than a little quixotically to sign up for a post in the Royal Marines. Orwell more sensibly went to work writing and broadcasting propaganda at the BBC. Both men believed Nazism and communism were profoundly different in kind from other national movements. In his best novel, Coming Up for Air, Orwell calls their leaders and followers “the streamlined men” dedicated to wiping out every vestige of Europe’s humane civilization in favor of a technologically efficient machine state, in which individuals would serve their government unquestioningly. For Waugh, Hitler and Stalin also posed a fatal threat to what he believed was the core of European civilization: Christianity.
Perhaps John Lukacs, an Hungarian émigré who came to London in 1946 and then emigrated to the United States, got it best in his micro-history Five Days in London, May 1940, published by Yale in 1999. From May 23 to May 28, members of Parliament strenuously debated what their country would have to do about Hitler: Either seek peace terms or go to war. Having been put in a Nazi work camp in the late 1930’s and watched with foreboding as the Soviet Union installed a communist regime in Hungary after the war, Lukacs had himself experienced the modern age in arms at close quarters. That’s why he agrees with Churchill: Hitler had to be stopped at all costs. He concludes that Nazism was so poisonous that the only prudent thing to do was excise the infection even at the risks inherent in making an alliance with the Soviets. Well, it worked after a fashion once America entered the war. There was never any real likelihood that England could have defeated Germany on her own.
Both the film and the book revolve around the contest between Edward Wood, Lord Halifax and Churchill, who were being considered for prime minister in 1940. Halifax declined his party’s offer of the post, and that left Churchill as the only man likely to win the approval of the Labour Party necessary for a majority vote. The film, being a product of an industry commercially committed to sensation, transforms the men’s disagreement into a heated battle of wills, but it wasn’t that at all. While he was skeptical of Churchill’s abilities and the inclinations that came with them, Halifax was a genuine patriot determined to do what was best for his country. In his estimation, this meant supporting Churchill’s strengths while curtailing his warmongering excesses. The two men worked together rather well on most occasions. Lukacs says of Halifax that “he knew how to adjust his mind to circumstances rather than attempt to adjust circumstances to his ideas.” This is another way of saying that Halifax was an empiricist rather than an ideologue and, as such, a pragmatic rather than a dogmatic conservative. Faced with Germany’s power, he was ready to discuss with the Nazi regime any peace terms that were not wholly injurious to England’s independence. He thought it only rational to avoid war with an enemy that clearly overmatched his nation’s military resources.
Churchill, on the other hand, insisted that the British must not seek terms with Herr Hitler. That doing so would sooner or later reduce England to a vassal state under the direction of an evil man at the head of a barbarous regime. He went so far as to say that it would be better for his nation to go down to defeat than to give in to such a tyrannous force. Understandably, many of his own party and among the general populace didn’t see the matter quite this way. Hitler was still regarded by many in 1940 as just another politician, not as the demon incarnate that he’s become in history’s rearview mirror.
For his part, Churchill, like Orwell and Waugh, divined in his enemy something entirely new: an utterly inhuman force bent on suffocating individual liberty once and for all. And he knew well that England couldn’t prevail against it without the Russians and the Americans. In the event, he could be said to concur with Halifax’s empiricism up to a point. But he had no illusions about the Soviets. In 1946 he sent President Truman a memo recommending America launch an atomic attack on Russia. The Soviets were, after all, another hideous face of the modern age in arms.
I’d like to say Darkest Hour is a good film, but it’s not. It has many fine assets; the truth, however, is not one of them.
The performances are impressive all around, none more so than Gary Oldman impersonating Churchill with the aid of a fat suit and specially constructed dentures to give him the sibilant-slushing articulation for which the prime minister was famous. Kristin Scott Thomas seems a fair version of Churchill’s long-suffering wife, Clementine. And I liked especially Lily James as Churchill’s typist Elizabeth Layton. I confess I do so on improper grounds. Miss James with her pouty mouth and mischievous eyes is irresistibly charming. There, I said it. Call the #MeToo exchange and be damned. I very much doubt Miss James would resent my unreconstructed male admiration. She seems too much in the Catherine Deneuve camp for such moral preening.
Speaking of moral preening, The Shape of Water takes the cake. This remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) simpers with unrestrained political correctness. From the opening shot of the lifelong mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) disrobing and entering her bath, where she vigorously masturbates, we’re in the precincts of feverish feminism. Well, I don’t want to abjure self-stimulation. Is there anyone who hasn’t tried it and found it at least amusing? But I have to question its being served up so graphically in what is after all a kids’ film on steroids.
Shape concerns a government agency that has captured an amphibious gill-equipped humanoid in the Amazon in 1962 and brought him to a lab in Baltimore for observation. The military sees promise in the creature’s ability to breathe underwater. Might be useful in space.
To monitor the beast they’ve signed him over to Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, the most malevolent-looking actor working today: Shannon possesses a visage that can only be described as Frankensteinian. But even if he looked like George Clooney, you’d know he’s a bad guy. He’s shown at his desk reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. How fascist! Strickland, like every other employee of the military industrial complex, likes to dominate those he commands. In this case, he makes the mistake of using a cattle prod to get his way. As you may imagine, mayhem follows.
The gill man is, of course, intelligent and sweet natured. Why, he even responds to the music the forlorn Elisa plays at work as she goes about her lowly custodial duties at the lab. Soon they’re becoming something of a couple.
Thus, Shape is part remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon, part feminist fantasy, and part celebration of interspecies miscegenation (what could be more enlightened?), with a dollop of Pygmalion for seasoning.
In a film filled with visual astonishments, the most surprising appears in a black-and-white sequence without any special effects. With neither prelude nor explanation, Hawkins suddenly and inexplicably finds her voice and plaintively sings the Harry Warren-Mack Gordon 1943 standard “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You.” Perhaps I’m getting soft, but I found her recital inexpressibly touching. It dramatizes perfectly the feelings of a formerly cast-aside woman discovering her worth and dignity. As such, it almost makes up for the film’s resort to crudity elsewhere.