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

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

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…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

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…