Sunday, 30 July 2017


Off to the cinema to see Dunkirk, a new historical drama in which thousands of British soldiers are trapped in northern France and they can't get home because every time they board a ship it explodes and sinks but they keep on trying and I don't want to spoil the ending but eventually some of them do manage to get home.

Who would have predicted that there would be a big-budget Hollywood film about Dunkirk? Hollywood is often criticised for portraying the entire world as an adjunct of the United States, but Dunkirk was filmed within a few hundred miles of the real-life location and has an all-British-Irish-French-Dutch cast directed by the mostly-British Christopher Nolan. The music is by Hans Zimmer, who is German, but it was all a long time ago and it wasn't his fault. He couldn't choose his parents.

Back in 1958 the British film industry produced its own film of the Dunkirk evacuation, which I admit that I haven't seen. It starred John Mills and Richard Attenborough, who are both dead and gone, along with the British film industry of yore, and yet Dunkirk exists. At a cost of $150m it's unlikely to make its money back at the UK box office. How will it do in the United States and China? The film has a clutch of recognisable stars but they either have small cameos or, in the case of Tom Hardy, they spend almost the entirety of the film wearing a mask. Why does Christopher Nolan insist on casting such a beautiful man as Tom Hardy and then making him wear a mask? There's nothing wrong with Tom Hardy's face, far from it.

Is Dunkirk any good? It reminds me a little bit of Mad Max: Fury Road, or Gravity. Some time ago Hollywood pondered the question of how to make a serious historical adventure film in the age of Michael Bay; Dunkirk is one possible solution, along with the likes of The Revenant and The Martian and Wall-E.

They belong to a new tradition of kinetic, visual adventure films that have minimal dialogue, the skeleton of a plot and an emphasis on physical acting. They are the distant ancestors of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati's Playtime. When done well they are transcendent works of pure cinema, but when done poorly the result is like listening to a friend describe one of his dreams, which was fascinating to him when he dreamed it, but boring over coffee. Dunkirk unfortunately has a split personality. The visual aspect is terrific. The 70mm format allowed the cinematographer to go ape with creative depth of field effects - a few shots are even out of focus - and if Dunkirk had more hardcore it would be a harrowing masterpiece. The problem is that director-writer-producer Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

Technical Notes
I saw the film at the Science Museum, on an IMAX screen. It was shown with an aspect ratio of 1.43:1, filling the screen. The film was shot with 70mm film and then edited with a computer and printed out to 70mm again - the digital intermediate model that was common in Hollywood before all-digital became practical. The titles wobbled a bit but otherwise the picture was sharp and clear, with grain visible in only a couple of shots, and even then it might have been a computer effect. There was one film defect (a tiny insect appeared to have got into the projector).

The Museum had a Second World War-themed "here are the exits" introduction starring one of the Museums' employees, a game chap called Mario. The queue for the beer was too long to get beer, so I watched the film sober. The Science Museum isn't an obvious choice to watch a film, but it feels like an event when you do. You have to go up an elevator to the theatre, as if you were ascending to cinematic heaven, n.b. the rest of the museum is fab as well and if they want to give me free tickets I won't say no HINT.

Lost his nerve. Dunkirk has a schizophrenic quality. The shots of destroyers exploding and turning over are horrible, but the visual poetics are interrupted with character pieces that don't work nearly as well. It feels like one of those 1970s disaster films where a potentially fascinating disaster was used as the backdrop for little character cameos that added plot without amounting to anything. A lengthy sequence involving Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier goes nowhere and feels like something from a television drama. It's supposed to illustrate the civilian cost of the war, but it feels trite. A sequence towards the end of the film in which a group of squaddies requisition a boat was presumably written so that top-billed Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles could do some acting, thus making them eligible for acting awards.

The talky parts; the film is never downright bad, although one brief scene in which Tom Hardy's fuel-starved Spitfire appears to shoot down a Stuka as if by magic is downright silly and at odds with the film's overall grim tone. At one point a soldier reads out Churchill's famous "fight them on the beaches" speech, but again this comes across like something from a television history dramatisation rather than the real world. The emphasis on the final part of the speech, in which Churchill voices the hope that the United States will enter the war, feels like an attempt to make the film sell in the United States.

What little dialogue there is treads a thin line between simple and simplistic. Top thesp Mark Rylance as the wizened captain of a small boat delivers a series of platitudes that put me in mind of the main characters from Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows - well-meaning but dim - which surely wasn't the intention. Kenneth Branagh spends the whole of the film standing on jetty looking worried, and my attention drifted to the moles on his chin. Can't he have them surgically removed? He's supposed to be a grim naval officer, but there's something too jolly about Kenneth Branagh for that to work. He stood out in the late 1980s because he was a refreshing throwback to the older style of extroverted, theatrical acting that had gone out of vogue in the 1960s; he feels out of place in Dunkirk because the film calls for a naturalistic style that he can't pull off. Furthermore his dialogue is numbers-heavy exposition, which much have been painful for him. The film does a surprisingly poor job of showing the huge scale of the evacuation - we see a couple of destroyers and a dozen or so small boats -leaving Branagh to essentially tell us, the audience, that 300,000 men were taken off, which again feels like something from a much older film.

Whitehead and Styles are newcomers to the screen, and most of the rest of the cast seem to have been picked for their faces rather than their names, and so the celebrity cameos feel out of place. Did the investors demand big box-office names for the post? A version of Dunkirk in which Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy fought off the Germans all by themselves would have been ridiculous, but giving them smaller roles has the effect of drawing attention from the main characters. Again, it's as if Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

All of this ill-will evaporates when the talking ceases and the action takes over, particularly when Hans Zimmer's score starts up. The music lifts the film up a notch. Zimmer doesn't stretch himself, but the familiar mixture of ticking clocks, chattering violins, and groaning bass notes amplifies the tension of incoming bombing raids to an almost unbearable level. At one point the score segues from dissonance into a version of Elgar's Nimrod, which should have been naff but was audacious enough to work. Nolan paces the film out by playing with the passage of time, freely cutting between events that take place at different points in the story; at first it seems like poor continuity but eventually it makes sense. The film is occasionally repetitive, and the Spitfire battles have a samey quality, but if the film had just been ninety minutes of stunning visuals and Zimmer's music it would have been much better.

Ultimately Dunkirk is a well-made kinetic action poem punctuated by unsatisfying specks of a lesser film, like a big tasty cookie dotted with flecks of poor-quality chocolate. It entertained me for its running length and will be an awesome 4K demo, and perhaps it will inspire other filmmakers to tackle British subjects that have been neglected by the cinema, but I won't remember it in the future as I remember The Revenant or Gravity.

Mental Notes
The review is over. Do I have any more thoughts? From a contemporary British perspective there's something jarring about Dunkirk. It has a bunch of older British actors wearing military uniforms, but they're the good guys. They don't order their men to open fire on unarmed civilians or burn down a native village. The officers aren't even portrayed as uncaring buffoons with stupid moustaches. This isn't necessarily a British problem - officers are rarely depicted positively in Hollywood films - but after decades in which British people are the baddies it is odd to see some who are not.

The film has attracted some criticism for its entirely white, male cast. As far as I can tell no-one has criticised it for ignoring the fat acceptance movement (none of the characters are overweight) or for ignoring issues that face the trans community. There is an argument that history as an objective record of events is impossible, because history is filtered through the recollection of the dominant class if not actively perverted by their censors, and there is an argument that even if it was possible to record an objective history it would be pointless to dig up the past unless it could be used in the present for a practical purpose such as increasing Labour's share of the vote.

There is an argument that racist white Britain will lap up Dunkirk because it reminds them of a past-time paradise in which Britain's cities didn't have those people. And there is an argument that it's wrong to show the film nowadays because it upholds the wicked rotten lie that Britain was mostly white until after the Second World War, and furthermore it will be used as propaganda for the Tory Party, etc. All of this will be fodder for other people's blog posts and a meal ticket for people who would otherwise be unemployed.

It struck me while watching Dunkirk that the mid-century British people depicted in their small boats were as alien to me as the Aztecs of Apocalypto or the Somali gunpeople of Black Hawk Down. London circa 2017 only has a few white people left, and I imagine that for the remaining population Dunkirk is basically science fiction, as irrelevant to them as Bollywood cinema is to me. Even for white people people my age the Britain of 1940 is a foreign land populated by foreign people who grew up in a completely different world, with a different mindset and different dreams.

At first I thought that the aerial battles were CGI, and that this was the first film ever with a CGI model of a Bristol Blenheim, but most of the aircraft are real. The German Me-109s are played by post-war Spanish 109s, which is noticeable because they have a more bulbous nose than the real aircraft. The Stukas and He-111 bomber are presumably CGI. The Germans are shown flying their 109s in tight formation with the bombers, but this didn't happen until a few months later during the Battle of Britain, and then only under protest.

The last of the British soldiers were evacuated on 03 June, Churchill gave his "beaches" speech the day after, and it wouldn't have been reported in the newspapers until the day after that, so it's unlikely that the closing sequence could have happened in real life.

Just before Tom Hardy miraculously shoots down a Stuka whilst gliding down to the beach there is a shot of Kenneth Branagh, and over his shoulder I could have sworn there was a brief glimpse of an aeroplane crashing down to earth. Perhaps it was a piece of debris.

I have never had the impression that the evacuated soldiers expected to be mocked as cowards; that doesn't fit the British psyche. "Thank God they're safe" would have been the attitude. They had five more years of fighting ahead of them, first in the deserts of North Africa and latterly in France and Germany itself. Over a third of a million British soldiers were killed during the war, coincidentally almost the exact same size as the British Expeditionary Force of 1940, but thankfully we had replacements. The survivors were rewarded with the NHS and Milton Keynes, so there is that.