There's A Hidden Message About Women In All These Dunkirk Movies

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
There's been a strange glut of Dunkirk-related films this year, each with its own, unique perspective on the event that arguably changed the tide of World War II. Their Finest, which followed a crew of Ministry of Information scriptwriters as they try to make the most inspirational propaganda film ever, tackled the home front. Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's epic reenactment of the events on the ground, gave voice to the troops. And finally, Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, the latest of these films to hit theaters, paints a compelling picture of the statesman who made it all possible: Winston Churchill.
Interestingly, all three films, in their own way, manage to highlight the impossible situation that women were faced with during the conflict. Namely, they were expected to help with and even lead the war effort, but not expect any kind of agency in return.
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Their Finest, the only one of these films to boast a female director (Lone Scherfig) portrays this struggle most explicitly: the main character, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), is quite literally a woman striving to be taken seriously as a writer in the sexist, male-dominated environment that is the film business (some things never change).
In Dunkirk, the absence of women is somewhat justified by the premise, which excludes anyone not directly involved in the fight taking place on the French beach. The only female characters we see (and hear) are nurses aboard the ships that come to carry the soldiers back to Britain, or the rare volunteer aboard a civilian boat.
Darkest Hour, which comes out in wide release December 22, takes a more nuanced approach. The film is about Churchill, and Gary Oldman dominates most of the screen time — but the constant, quiet forces behind him, propping him up when he flails, are women. Specifically, his wife, Clementine, portrayed with steely humor by Kristin Scott Thomas, and his secretary, Elizabeth Layton, played by Lily James.
James' character is based on Churchill's real-life personal secretary, Elizabeth Nel (née Layton), who followed the statesman from 1941 through 1945. To prepare for the role, James read her memoirs, which described Churchill's real affection for his staff, but also his mercurial moods (he hated single spaced memos). "She always thought that she was in the presence of a great man," James said.
She also took a six-week typing class to be able to keep up with Gary Oldman's speeches on a typewriter. "I got really good," James joked. "And I enjoyed feeling like I'm able to access Elizabeth Layton through something so technical."
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A big chunk of the film takes place in the Cabinet War Rooms, an underground bunker used by the British government war command throughout the conflict. The existence of this complex was top secret, so much so that the many people who staffed for government official couldn't tell anyone where they were working.
"The secretaries were on duty all through the night, and would write in shorthand whenever inspiration struck," James said. "They were right on the front line of Churchill's operation down in the war room. The pressure, and what it must have been like to be in those rooms with those people, to me, as a young woman it blows my mind."
That access, however, had its limits. In one memorable scene, Layton is shown an office and told never to enter: "No women allowed."
It's a moment that both feels dated, and extremely current, especially during this time of national reckoning with issues of sexual harassment and assault, but also gender equality in the workplace. The War was somewhat of a double edged sword that, on the one hand, enabled women take up positions that they never could have previously, but without erasing the bold lines that kept gender roles separate. That came to a head towards the end of the conflict, when men came home and expected women to return to their pre-war occupation of marriage and motherhood.
"When a door is slammed in your face, you can't help but feel completely shut out in that moment," James said. "At that time, the fact that they could be there and take on important roles in the war, was very inspiring. And then we kind of went backwards after that, we sort of lost our way again."
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That Dunkirk and Churchill are relevant again isn't all that surprising. We're currently living through an unstable moment in history, one where dark forces we once thought extinguished are once again rearing their heads. The idea that we would turn to strong leadership from the past in entertainment makes sense. But it would be remiss to once again overlook the women who worked tirelessly to push the cause of freedom and democracy forward. They deserve to be more than just a footnote in someone else's story. And ironically, the only Dunkirk film to put women front and center is the fake propaganda movie within Their Finest.
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