This is a film promoting the myth of English Exceptionalism, and by default, the efficacy of splendid isolationism. The people languishing on beaches are not refugees fleeing from wars we started – there’s no armada of rescue ships for them – the people we witness in survival and in death are the British Tommy, Jock and Taffy.
This is the third English war movie this year. There is more war-war and jaw-jaw to come: another film about Churchill, and yet another about Queen Victoria. Ridley Scott is reportedly working on a war epic. The story of Dunkirk has been told on film before. Leslie Norman, director – father of the film critic Barry Norman – shot the same-titled feature in 1958. You could call this one a reboot.
Director Christopher Nolan’s version covers the same territory but it does not follow specific lives. It’s an exercise in pure style.
We don’t fight wars anymore like we did in Europe, or organise evacuations like Dunkirk, not these days. We send killer drones to specific destinations, or do battle by proxy armies, and in the event displace and kill innocent civilians.
Dunkirk is a safe subject to dramatise, out of date. When Nazis were helping Franco bomb his own people into submission Picasso was painting Guernica. That’s how swift your conscience should motivate you. Or you can teach the sources of betrayal in war as Gillo Pontecorvo did shortly after the event depicted in The Battle of Algiers, (1966).
As soon as I heard Nolan say, “It’s got things to say about what we can achieve about community” I was wary. What community? Blairgowrie? Barra? Balornock? No, none of those. It’s about the British stiff upper lip. Nolan can’t free himself from that stereotype.
What is the film saying to us – that even the worst individual can be a Good Samaritan when the moment presents itself? Man’s inhumanity to man is unstoppable? Do we need a re-enactment of the British war spirit to tell us that? If readers think I’m carping, here’s the real objection:
The grotesque irony of Dunkirk is the film opens in the UK when English suspicion of Johnny Foreigner sees them jettison Europe – we Scots included in that insulting category of ‘alien’. The movement’s leaders cite Germany as ‘the enemy’. Brexiteers quote Churchill at every opportunity. He has become their patron saint. England is intent on securing the best deal for itself, grabbing maximum powers, while excluding ‘the colonies’ from involvement. Colonies will take what they get, if they get anything at all. I can’t see any unification of community there.
The unfortunate thing for the film’s producers is its release coincides with the disaster that is Brexit, the Brits leaving Europe. Irony is everywhere. Your mind asks if thousands of men on the beach at Dunkirk died so that a large part of the United Kingdom could have the civil liberties of its citizens curtailed. We live in an age where xenophobia as an officially blessed policy. Did that occur to Christopher Nolan when he thought Dunkirk a subject not fully explored? I doubt it.
So, what’s left to attract us to an evening at the flicks? Spectacle? Good acting? Understated heroics? An obsessive attention to historical detail that entices us into the drama? Seductive cinematography? Well, yes, all of the above.
Christopher Nolan is a London lad, English father, American mother. He’s an extraordinarily successful writer-director, not in the French mould, not a Truffaut or Godard, but in the big picture special effects mould, and just as pioneering in ideas. His films have a similarity of content, alienated main characters, the shifting of time and space. When he first appeared in the picture house scene with Memento, you knew a new cinematic talent had arrived, an unusual talent able to handle a complicated storyline.
Memento (2000) is relentlessly impressionistic, Nolan’s trademark style seen in Inception (2010), the politically muddled The Dark Knight Rises, (2012) and Interstellar, (2014). Dunkirk follows that impressionistic technique to the letter. It weaves several stories together, but like Memento the players are for the most part anonymous. None of the young soldiers are given a name. Cillian Murphy’s soldier rescued from the sea is credited as “Shivering Man.” One you take note of because he’s a pop star, Harry Styles, is a misstep in casting. Readers might want to check if Warner Music owns One Direction.
There are no hand-to-hand combat scenes. There are no exploding guts, viscera-strewn sands, blood red tides, or severed limbs dropped in front of the camera lens.
You’re held captive by what you see, immensely impressed by the sheer craft of the film, accepting this is a male-centric story. However, if Nolan is to be considered a true auteur, he has to write well for women as he does for men. The few women seen are handing out cups of tea and jam sandwiches.
Dunkirk was a hell of the Second World War. Fleeing the advance of Hitler’s army as it marched through Belgium to France and on to Paris, 400,000 British soldiers retreated to Dunkirk sands. There they awaited rescue.
Large ships couldn’t reach the mass of humanity in such shallow waters, so the heroic set off from England’s quiet south coast to reach the beach in a flotilla of small craft. Those boats aimed to ferry as many soldiers at a time as they could carry. All were sitting ducks for German fighter planes.
I’ll deal with the film’s weaknesses first. It has quite a few.
In no special order: The intricate cross-referenced storylines makes things confusing. As soon as the visceral sequences are halted for a quite passage your mind wanders. Time to go for a pee, or buy another ice cream. There’s a strong air of over-intellectualisation, (confirmed in interviews with the director) as if Nolan is reaching for the Pseuds Corner of movie makers.
Having the majority of characters anonymous is an audacious idea, but being fearless doesn’t mean being successful. The long studied shots of groups of men huddled together for safety, like penguins in a storm, convey less about humanity’s folly as they do about a lot of young extras hoping their mother will spot them.
I expect to get castigated by passionate Zimmer fans for this opinion. The next error, in my view, is Hans Zimmer’s music. He and Nolan are old collaborators. While I marvel at Zimmer’s inventiveness, here the amount of music Nolan lays on adds massive unwanted weight where none is needed. Nolan surrenders his film to Zimmer’s endless cacophony. Within minutes I felt like shouting “Shut up!” at the screen.
Listen carefully and you’ll spot Zimmer’s score is based on a ticking clock. There’s a surfeit of reverberating drums, groaning vibrato, moans and groans, bashed piano strings, and weird electronic effects that get in the way of the vivid images.
Much of the score is superfluous. And when Zimmer feels the time is right to raise patriotic feelings he judges Elgar superior to his own musical efforts.
So, what’s to like? A reader reminds me the sight of a Spitfire gliding silently, effortlessly is quite beautiful, engine off, petrol tank empty.
The people we get to know are played by well known actors and they acquit themselves well. Tom Hardy, he of little screen magnetism, plays a British Spitfire pilot, another role where his face is mostly hidden, this time behind an oxygen mask. Whatever he is saying you can’t understand, it’s muffled. He does it all with his eyes.
We follow a British soldier, (Fionn Whitehead) on the beach at Dunkirk, as he tries to find a way off the vast dreamlike landscape. We empathise with every step he takes though the near death incidents he escapes from seem more and more contrived.
Soft spoken Mark Rylance, forever immortalised as the soft spoken Big Friendly Giant, shows us how completely he’s monopolised the archetypical role of soft spoken Mr Average from the leafy village of Nothing-to-See. He’s soft spoken Mr Dawson, owner of an old wooden yacht Moonstone, a man who knows right from wrong, and what sacrifice means in war, and speaks of it … softly.
There is a riveting scene of a soldier thinking his England that he can see across the water is so close he can swim there. That’s a truthful moment for others thought the same and drowned. But a lot of the dramatic moments are fictionalised events.
What resonates throughout the film is a kind of hope. There is compassion in Nolan’s vision. He and editor Lee Smith juggle the timelines deftly. The director has found a structure that enhances the film’s subjectivity. Shooting enough film to encapsulate seven days waiting to be rescued on the beach captures the agony of uncertainty. Spending a day on a small boat shows us hell is no place for a pleasure craft.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s suffocating camera work, weaving in and out and around soldiers, keeps us alert for danger; we are with the soldiers as they walk waist deep to boats, or die amid a strafing of bullets and bombs. This time Nolan eschews plodding exposition for minimal dialogue. What’s scripted could fit on a tea towel. He’s dropped spelling things out as if we’re slow learners, a common failing in past work.
What little dialogue we hear we remember and pass to others: “The tide’s turning now.” “How can you tell?” “The bodies are coming back.”)
For all the film’s epic nature Nolan gives us a lot of welcome understatement. The death of one major player happens off-screen, its impact resonates for not witnessing it. In another scene, a boat slamming against a pier causes a muffled scream suggesting a soldier has been crushed between the two. Then there is Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, playing the Stiff Upper Lip, a lost, lonely figure trying to come to terms with the aftermath of military humiliation, and knowing he never will.
I appreciated Nolan never refers to Hitler or Nazi’s once. (Maybe I missed a reference? Readers will correct me.) The film is about loss on a gigantic scale, military accuracy is not altogether relevant.
Thinking about what I saw, the various switches in place and time, has Churchill’s fight speech take on two meanings: we will fight the enemy on their territory, and if invaded we will fight the enemy on our own teritory. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.”
Not a disaster movie, nor a disaster of a movie, but a study in survival. Passages are repetitious. In parts, the film’s narrative is confusing, a Nolan hallmark. Hans Zimmer’s music is a terrible intrusion.
Good critics can fall into the trap of patriotic correctness. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian has gone apeshit over the film, awarding it 100 gold stars. This decade’s generation of youth short of historical perspective might think the film profound. Teen fans of Harry Styles will project themselves onto his role. All in all, there are parts I admired, there are sequences I did not. Only once does Nolan touch on English racism, (depicted against French soldiers) a bold move, but not developed.
As for the masterpiece British nationalists are calling it, well, they would, wouldn’t they?
The film’s subtext is, Brits stick together in adversity to be stronger in the world. If that’s not simplistic apple pie propaganda I don’t know what is. To my mind, the film is honest if rather too self-indulgent. In the end it’s two hours of nostalgia.
- Star rating: Three-and-half stars
- Cast: Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead,
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Writer: Christopher Nolan
- Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
- Composer: Hans Zimmer
- Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes