The year is 1940, and the Battle of Britain is going so badly for the RAF that the top brass are reluctantly considering allowing a group of Polish airmen to form a fighter squadron to help repel Jerry. Hopes are not high for the new recruits following their comprehensive defeat by the Luftwaffe over mainland Europe. Yet it quickly transpires that British fears are unfounded – the Polish pilots soon prove to be a crack force.
David Blair’s Hurricane (cert 15, 123 mins) tells the story of this squadron – which racked up more “kills” than any other in the RAF – through a mixture of real-life characters and fictional ones. Before watching Hurricane, I assumed it would be an unremarkable British war film, more suited to a slot on television; it’s better than that, though. What could have been an exercise in sentimental triumphalism instead plays out in more interesting and complex terms. It is more than just a World War II yarn; it is also a plea for recognition for a group of extraordinary men.
The Polish pilots are very much at the front and centre of the action, even getting to speak their own language, rather than the heavily accented English so beloved of this type of film. They are not a homogenous bunch of heroes, but rather a disparate group driven by a range of motivations and personal problems, from the pilot desperate to be the star of the show to the devout Catholic racked by guilt at having to kill the enemy. At one point the latter builds a makeshift chapel at the barracks, which quickly comes to act as a shrine for fallen members of the squadron. The sacrifice these men made is underlined, and there is a melancholic air to proceedings, enhanced by the film’s muted palette, all browns and dark greys.
Not all of Hurricane is successful. The presumably tight budget is betrayed in the unconvincing mid-air battle sequences, while the main female presence, Stefanie Martini’s radar station operative Phyllis Lambert, is a major misstep. Her defining characteristic is that she sleeps with a number of different pilots, finally settling on Jan Zumbach, the real-life squadron leader (played by Game of Thrones star Iwan Rheon). To mitigate this reductive presentation, we get a scene in which she stands up to a bullying male superior and proves her tactical nous as the battle rages in the skies. It’s a clunky and unsuccessful balancing act.
In the final scenes, we see the Polish airmen excluded from the post-war victory parade and then forced either to take menial jobs or leave Britain (with the unenticing prospect of returning to their communist-ruled homeland). If the thesis that the government treated these men shoddily is correct, then that is a grave injustice. They are heroes who deserve to be lionised – and Hurricane does an admirable job of doing just that.