Friday 20 July 2018

"Spitfire" (Guardian 20/07/18)

Spitfire ***
Dirs: David Fairhead, Ant Palmer. Documentary with the voice of Charles Dance. 99 mins. Cert: PG

Post-Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, there will surely be more of these retrospectives on the horizon, harking back to an age when Britain laid claim to ruling waves and air alike. David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s documentary, released to mark the RAF’s centenary, bolsters its honourable core project – preserving the testimony of former Spitfire pilots – with material guaranteed to spike the pulse rate of aeronautical enthusiasts: footage of surviving Spits being wheeled out of museum storage; yards of scratchy combat film that underlines how distant these halcyon days now are; nuts-and-bolts analysis of the planes’ defensive strengths. Only belatedly does it consider whether these motorised killing machines might be as problematic as they are emblematic.

The directors enter the archive with scholarly care and craft, finding a useful early toehold in 1942’s flagwaver The First of the Few, where director-star Leslie Howard played Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell. Narrated by unofficial-voice-of-Empire Charles Dance and elegantly scored by Chris Roe, their own feature retains the contours of a stirring underdog tale, as a squadron of plucky Kens and Geoffreys recall signing up to see off the Luftwaffe, despite being outnumbered by a ratio of four-to-one. These twinkly-eyed aces apparently needed scant prompting to revisit their derring-do, generating gobbets of Spit-trivia: the planes’ elliptical wing design, we learn, was a cheeky crib from German WW1 fighters, an instance of Teutonic aggression being turned against itself.

PG-rated and matinee-bound, the film can seem a trifle coy about addressing the consequences of combat. Regular flights over rolling English countryside position these planes as no more dangerous than their Airfix replicas; the editorial broadly aligns with the serviceman who confesses “I shouldn’t say I enjoyed it when other people were being killed, but...”. For non-buffs, Spitfire will seem as curious or niche as making a film in 2018 about the Ack-Ack gun; in the week a new fleet of fighters have been commissioned to patrol our skies, there may be reasons why these narratives are being returned to circulation. Yet in and of itself, this cinematic time-capsule does its bit capably, even touchingly: the memories are here, for anybody who wishes to cling onto them.

Spitfire opens in selected cinemas from today.

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