Back in April, Their Finest depicted the British Ministry of Information backing a feature film about the civilian nautical craft evacuation of Dunkirk during World War Two. Now, Warner Brothers has spent a hundred and fifty million bucks on the same subject, and Britain gets a very expensive bonus slice of inspirational propaganda. Reserved, dignified, proud and brave, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is nothing if not very, very British.
I have to admit, I didn’t know about the civilian-aided evacuation effort, and the fact that it features in two prominent films this year might say something about our need for everyday heroes. It was an extraordinary event and it is given extraordinary technical respect here; this is a film where superlatives concerning the technique can’t help but get a bit heady. Utilising practical effects – real planes and boats from the era, including some boats that actually took part in the actual evacuation – Nolan has made a heartfelt connection with the past. It must have been something to launch those nearly hundred-year old vessels on a recreation of their proudest day. It must have given Nolan goosebumps…
…which is more than I can say Dunkirk did for me. I was blown away by its technical audacity, and I’m also in thrall to its intricate screenplay, which not only tells the film’s central story from three perspectives, in three different time-frames, but also allows for multiple interpretations of the same events, allowing for the subjectivity of memory. I learned a lot and was maybe a little inspired. But I cannot say I was moved. The human beings in the film function much as the boats and planes do; they are pieces to be shifted around on Nolan’s magnificent (IMAX!) canvas rather than memorable individuals. There are two exceptions: Mark Rylance’s stoic pleasure-boat captain makes a dignified impression, and Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot is fully realised, despite the actor’s face being covered in a massive pilot’s mask.
For the rest, though, the grunt soldiers who actually bear the story’s spine – I found them interchangeable to the point that I didn’t actually realise that there are three young leads. They’re all “fresh faces” – their names are Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles (he of One Direction) – and they didn’t land an impression on me. For all I could really tell, what happened to each of them happened to a bunch of them – they were simply more and more of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach, rather than three we were meant to care about. Their anonymity gave them universality while undercutting their emotional weight.
The film is full peril, danger and death, but I can’t recall a single drop of blood. Unlike every big-budget war film since Saving Private Ryan, it doesn’t stylistically crib Saving Private Ryan. The carnage is portrayed less graphically and eschews the “bullet zip” and sped-up camera effect that made Ryan’s scenes so devastating. It’s a little more old-school, a little more… British.
I appreciated the supreme virtuosity of the film, but I wasn’t really needing it in my life (except as an incredibly staged history lesson). While bravery is always a noble theme, nothing about Dunkirk speaks to the here and now. It’s timeless, classical filmmaking on a massive, modern scale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, daresay I, ‘tis nothing to be sneezed at.
A fun observation: Kenneth Branagh, as the highest-ranked officer on the beach, must have the tightest performance area of any actor in a big epic since the naval commanders on the bridge of Tora Tora Tora! Stationed at the end of the “mole”, Dunkirk’s long pier, Branagh occasionally takes a step over here, and, later… perhaps a step back. Cuppa tea, anyone?