Skip to main content

What has happened is a colossal military disaster.

Dunkirk
(2017)

(SPOILERS) For the most part, Dunkirk is every bit as relentless and gripping as you’ve heard. I wouldn’t say it ranks up there with Christopher Nolan’s trio of classics thus far (Memento, The Prestige, Inception), or agree that it’s quite as unparalleled as the critical plaudits attest, but it’s definitely more pronounced in its achievements than his last couple of patchy pictures. But it’s as much what it tells us about his tendencies that makes Dunkirk interesting in his filmography, aside from accessing his facility for conveying harrowing incident. This is his first piece based on a real incident, and one of linear simplicity on the face of it, but Nolan can’t resist adorning it and turning it, in part, into an intellectual exercise.


At its best, Dunkirk succeeds without reliance on such devices – intriguing as they are -  and when shorn of stars who distract from complete immersion in the narrative, be it Sir Ken as the every-Brit-actor-staunch-stoic naval Commander Bolton, stand-in for a classic WWII movie Jack Hawkins type, or Tom Hardy as the ridiculously miraculous hero (iii. The Air), going ever onwards to smite the Luftwaffe even when it’s doubtful he can make it home. And who, if he hadn’t landed his fuel-less plane perfectly after taking down a Hun one in similarly empty-tanked fashion – if he hadn’t been captured, there’s little doubt he’d have gone on to win the war singlehandedly, that very year – would have emerged from its blazing wreck, Right Stuff style, to a stirring musical accompaniment. And there’s Mark Rylance (ii. The Sea), playing almost a caricature of Honest Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, in a sequence that is only semi-effective, doused as it is in War Office propaganda movie homilies about doing the right thing, complete with a rather ungainly, button-pushing subplot concerning the young pup (Barry Keoghan) with dreams of heroic exploits who hits his head.


As such, the consistently superior sequence – the greater part of i. The Mole – is the one with Harry Styles in, at least partly because I needed to be told which one he was at the end. So, with no familiar faces attached, I could let Nolan get on with doing what he’s doing best: delivering an unending, claustrophobic nightmare, kicking off with a sense of inescapable terror in the manner of a zombie movie (it put me in mind of the beginning of 28 Weeks Later). One in which nigh-on newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s appropriately named Tommy (appropriate, or a crude indicator of Nolan’s desire to distil elements to their essence?) makes it to the beach – does he ever get to take that crap, though? –  yet his attempts to find safe passage lead to an almost – if there was any time to stop and reflect – darkly comic inability to find any vessel that isn’t about to be sunk or blown up or otherwise doomed (what Nolan’s up to is a much defter and more compelling version of the increasingly ludicrous chase-and-nearly- drown encounters that befall Leo and Kate in Titanic).


Whitehead’s the standout, but Aneurin Barnard’s near-silent Gibson is also highly effective, speaking a thousand words through expression alone. And Styles? He’s fine, although I don’t know how his legion of fans will take to him essaying possibly not the film’s most sympathetic character.


Perhaps the picture could have been more “stripped to the bone”. The visceral quality of much of the proceedings is so inexorable that it becomes almost an imposition to then notice the plot wheels obviously intruding; you’re surprised and dismayed that Nolan reverts to grunting, wheezing pulleys and levers. Mr Dawson’s unerring virtuousness owes its debt to an earlier era, leading to almost cheesy feats of skill (“How did you know?” gushes rescued pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) admiringly, when Dawson gives instructions to evade a Messerschmitt; having had a son in the RAF doesn’t entirely clear up the point).


Admittedly, there are some slightly uncomfortable takeaways here too, such as, thematically, that if you’re French and you steal a British uniform, you’ll end up drowned as your just desserts – no matter what defensive protestations your goodly English defender will attest in your favour, or whether you earlier saved your allies from a watery grave –  and if you’re shell-shocked you can’t just be suffering from that, you also have to end up guilty of getting that poor kid killed; the “true” heroes survive duly approved, of course, with Commander Bolton even going down with his sinking beach, so to speak (this might be a nod to Churchill leaving the French high and dry with false promises, in which case it’s something short of an apologia).


When the picture emerges from the remorseless assault into the relief of cheers for the arriving flotilla of wee civilian ships, and ends on a familiar piece of rallying Churchill cant read from the morning newspaper, it feels like Nolan has taken the easier option, when ending just as bluntly and starkly as he opened would have wielded more impact.  But I can see why he’s done this; he’s been given a huge amount of money to deliver what is, for the most part a tough sell (notably, though, these elements of traditional plot and character, the ones that work less well, are the very bits that put me off in the trailer – the “You can practically see it from here… home” Ken, the staunch Rylance – and made me, and no doubt others, until the rapturous notices came in, think this might be a dodo.


The tricksy time frame is the most resoundingly “Nolan” card in Dunkirk’s deck, betraying as it does that, for all the intensity, this picture is in conception a clinical, detached puzzle box of calculation. He’s not coming at the material from an emotional, moral or philosophical position, ultimately, and its only in retrospect you wonder if the marriage of war horror (for want of a better way of terming it) with blatant cinematic artifice is entirely appropriate. It’s an interesting choice, but places under harsh lights just how manipulative this concoction is. There are times when the decision resonates, such as when you see men going to what you know are their dooms because you’ve already seen the aftermath, but at others it seems like purely a cerebral exercise (hence also the ordered, indexed chapter titles).


To underline this contrast, Nolan’s playing to his strengths when concentrating on the unvarnished elements of his tangible reality. Some might call him reactionary in his anti-digital, anti-CGI (except where essential) attitude, but it pays dividend in establishing an immediacy to the action (the counter argument is, when Collins is decried by survivors with “Where were you?”, his response ought to have been “Nolan could only afford three spitfires”). The camera is only ever where it could actually be placed – there is no virtual, gravity defying nonsense here – be it following sinking ships with their passengers or Captain Tom in his cockpit.


It doesn’t feel old school either – despite the sometimes-over-assuring presence of acting luminaries – thanks to Lee Smith’s unerringly sharp and focussed editing (he’s been Nolan’s regular since Batman Begins) and the incredibly impressive, overpoweringly oppressive ticking-clock score from Hans Zimmer. It’s entirely a testament to Nolan that the composer can deliver entirely forgettable work in a legion of other movies, but every time they team again he’s furnishing something definitive and unparalleled (another director who has notably coaxed Zimmer into some of his best work is Guy Ritchie).


Dunkirk is not political, so Nolan tells us (“The enemy” are the first two words, rather than naming the aggressor by country or faction, and the reasons for Hitler’s decision not to send in the tanks are dismissed with two lines of pat explanation). It does, however, feel partial and conservative in its sensibilities; the brave, noble heroes (Rylance, Hardy), the fearful fellow who continues despite himself (Whitehead) and those whose sense of self-preservation is to be their undoing (Murphy’s soldier, Gibson). This isn’t a complex psychological canvas, so characters’ fates announce loudly the underlying themes. Nolan’s silence “politically” also speaks volumes because for all the nu-war movie – read, nominally anti- ­– elements illustrating the less officially sanctioned side of conflict – cowardice, PTS, in-fighting – it maintains a party line as much as Saving Private Ryan, possibly more so, as the beastly Krauts fail to shoot heroic Hardy at the end and he gets to plan his daring escape from Colditz in the sequel.


Is Dunkirk really about anything beyond its cinematic virtuosity, then (Nolan’s sense of geography within the scene has come on in strides, but I still couldn’t quite figure where the shots were supposed to be coming from in the grounded boat sequence – I presume from shore, but it felt like amid the rising tide)? It doesn’t leave one with a great deal of food for thought (other than those poor sods having to go back again four years later), and ends on a similarly “justified conflict” note to Private Ryan (I hesitate to say glorified, but that’s always a consequence of a war movie that thrills – and this is, whatever Nolan in his ivory brain stem says to the contrary, a war film, and one that thrills).


That said, I’m dubious about some of the commentary suggesting the retreat is painted as a victory, as the propaganda of the time had it. An achievement, certainly, but for the most part this is far too stark and tarnished to come away from with a cosy feeling of reward. Even in its moments of heroic derring-do, there’s no Dambusters-equivalent rousing anthem to clutch patriotically to one’s bosom. Nevertheless, there’s a balancing point here. Lies may weave thematically throughout the director’s body of work, but the idea that he’s commenting on the various levels of falsehood – those we tell ourselves, tell others, announce in papers whether to the nation or the local community – smacks moderately of delusion on his part when the takeaway is undeniably more traditionally affirmative.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert.

Dr. Strangelove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (SPOILERS) Kubrick’s masterpiece satire of mutually-assured destruction. Or is it? Not the masterpiece bit, because that’s a given. Rather, is all it’s really about the threat of nuclear holocaust? While that’s obviously quite sufficient, all the director’s films are suggested to have, in popular alt-readings, something else going on under the hood, be it exposing the ways of Elite paedophilia ( Lolita , Eyes Wide Shut ), MKUltra programming ( A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket ), transhumanism and the threat of imminent AI overlords ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and most of the aforementioned and more besides (the all-purpose smorgasbord that is The Shining ). Even Barry Lyndon has been posited to exist in a post-reset-history world. Could Kubrick be talking about something else as well in Dr. Strangelove ?