Revisiting old classics, discovering hidden gems and exploring the contemporary movie scene: every month, Kafkadesk’s CineClub brings you new insights and expert film reviews of the greatest treasures of Central European cinema. This week: Dark Blue World (Tmavomodrý svět, 2001), by Jan Svěrák.
Much like Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay’s mega-budget travesty released the same year, Dark Blue World squanders screen time for a fascinating true story by indulging in a tepid love triangle. While all of Pearl Harbor is awful, the sad thing about Dark Blue World is that only the romantic element brings it into disrepute, tainting a rousing tale.
The film opens in 1950 with our main protagonist, Franta Sláma (Ondřej Vetchý) incarcerated in a gloomy prison by the Communist regime for serving with the RAF during World War II. We then flashback to happier times with his girlfriend before the Germans marched in.
With the Czechoslovak Army disbanded, Franta and a group of other fliers, including his young hot-headed protégé Karel Vojtíšek (Kryštof Hádek) escape to England to join the RAF. They are initially side-lined, taking part in pointless exercises, learning English, and gazing enviously at the dogfights going on in the skies above them.
Czech flyboys and elegant Spitfires
The RAF is in constant need of more pilots as the Battle of Britain intensifies, so our boys soon get their chance. After a few teething problems they’re gunning down German planes with glee, taking a little revenge for all the folks back home…
The dynamic changes between the two friends after Karel is shot down near the delightful country cottage of Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), a plummy thirty-something waiting in hope for her MIA husband to come home. She puts the young pilot up for the night and instantly falls for his boyish charms, then into the sack with him.
Susan regrets it and cuts off their relationship before it can get started, although not before she has also met Franta and fallen head over heels for him too. The pair then start an ill-advised affair behind Karel’s back.
Dark Blue World has the feel of a good old fashioned war epic, and when I say it’s like a rainy Sunday afternoon movie, I mean that in a positive sense. It reminds me of the war films I loved watching with my grandparents when I was a kid, stuff like The Dam Busters, Ice Cold in Alex and The Great Escape. The nostalgic vibe is assisted by regular Svěrák collaborator Vladimír Smutný’s handsome, rose-tinted cinematography.
We’re no strangers to rose-tinted nostalgia in a Svěrák movie, but that stylistic choice makes a lot of sense here. The prison scenes are shot in drab blues and stark greys, reflecting the harsh and hopeless environment the former heroes find themselves in. In contrast to that existence, the pilots must have looked back on life in the RAF with some sense of nostalgia.
While the pilots were in grave danger fighting against the Luftwaffe, life on the ground doesn’t seem all that bad. They drink beer, chat up local girls and generally look dashing while waiting to scramble to their sexy Spitfires.
A love affair not to remember
Nothing makes the testicles of a certain type of Englishman swell more than seeing a Spitfire in flight. I’m not usually one of those guys, but I would have loved to see this film in the cinema for the growl of those engines. Svěrák used real planes wherever possible, and the Spitfires reportedly cost $10,000 an hour to rent. It was totally worth it.
Dark Blue World looks like it cost a lot more than its modest eight million euro budget, although the financial limitations show in the dogfights, where Svěrák is forced to mix real planes with Playstation-level CGI and some recycled footage from Battle of Britain. By this time, we’re invested enough to give it a pass and it doesn’t affect the intensity of the fighting too much, but it is a little jarring.
Far more harmful to the film is the love triangle. There is very little chemistry between Fitzgerald and the male leads, and neither the writing or performances do much to convince us that she’s the type of woman to fall straight into bed with not one but two Czech flyboys who show up at her door.
There were many affairs and impromptu bunk-ups during WWII because people simply didn’t know whether they were going to live or die from one moment to the next. However, the connection between Susan and the older pilot is so barely perceptible that the whole love triangle thing feels like a plot contrivance.
All that said, the majority of Dark Blue World is strong enough to survive its undercooked and ill-conceived romance. It is definitely the best movie from 2001 that sets a love triangle against the backdrop of a momentous historical battle. It is just a shame that filmmakers don’t always trust the real-life drama to hold the audience’s interest for a couple of hours.
By Lee Adams
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. He studied film at university but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.