Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

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