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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver (2017)
(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.