More noise than signal


Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

After a disastrous military campaign to kick off proceedings in WW2, the British and French armies find themselves being driven into the sea. Well over three hundred thousand souls found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting for an evacuation that was hoped would save thirty five thousand of them, but managed to retrieve more than ten times that.

The story of the evacuation, a race against time ultimately facilitated by the civilian vessels requisitioned to aid the Royal Navy in ferrying the servicemen back home still plays a part in the British identity, a sort-of-victory snatched from impending catastrophic defeat that allowed Britain to hold out, just, until the New World bailed us out. The following Battle of Britain cements the plucky island alone against the world ethos that our more ferverent nationalists like to think still holds true today, leading to some of our higher profile political missteps of recent times.

However, unusually this month we’re not here to talk about the big issues of the collapse of Empire, but simply the qualities of Chris Nolan’s latest film, the utilitarianly titled Dunkirk, if the two are separable. He has us join proceedings with the vast bulk of the unsightly “running away” already done, and the “orderly queueing” phase underway – a British specialty. If only wars could be won by tea and scone consumption.

There’s a few focal points we bounce around between, some of which tie up after rounds of quite needless light non-linearity. We’ve got Mark Rylance heading over the channel in one of the small civilian ships with his son and a local lad, picking up a shellshocked Cillian Murphy from a sunken vessel on the way. The bulk of the exposition is handled by Kenneth Branagh’s Navy Commander Bolton and James D’Arcy’s Colonel Winnant, on the mole at the head of a line of soldiers waiting patiently for evacuation.

We spend quite some time following Harry Styles’ Alex, looking for a way on to a ship and getting into various unpleasant scrapes along the way. Styles, I believe, was a member of a pop-rock combo that today’s youth are fond of. The remaining main plank of the film is Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy’s attempts to protect the ships from the Luftwaffe. While, as mentioned, some of this ties together, it’s not so much an overarching narrative as it is small segments of the overall gestalt of Operation Dynamo.

Nolan brings his usual sensibilities to the subject, but that may not be an unalloyed positive. Apparently 50 boats were found for the production, but it seemed like less than a dozen to me on viewing it. The total Allied ship count was closer to 700. There’s really not the sense of scale that there needed to be on the maritime front, and this is one instance where Nolan’s overriding preference for practical effects hurts the film. Would it really have been such a terrible thing to CG in a few dots on the horizon? Between this and his hardline shooting-on-film stance, Nolan opens himself up to accusations of Ludditeism, and if there’s any film-maker I’d like to see fully embrace all of the possibilities opened up by technology in addition to the realism conferred by physical effects, it’s Nolan? I’d rather hoped we’d moved on from that debate, at least in theoretical terms if not as evidenced by the results at the multiplex coalface.

Instead, Chris Nolan has redefined war movies, and he has redefined them to mean “close-ups of Tom Hardy’s near entirely flight-mask occluded face”. Actually, that’s not fair. It very frequently shows him pulling a lever, too.

It’s a curiously sterile film – while many soldiers are left to a sad demise by bomb or by water, there’s no grizzly details shown ala Saving Private Ryan, or more recently the meatgrinder of Hacksaw Ridge. This is not, at heart, a film that is hammering home the “war is hell” narrative in the literal visceral sense. Instead it’s doing… actually I’m not sure what it’s doing instead.

It appears to be an examination of human character and reactions under stress, and it shows that humans, when presented with challenges, will respond to them in different ways. Which is an observation up there with humans will attempt to breathe in and out, when possible.

It’s refreshing, in a sense, to see a film that’s dealing with this subject matter without going straight for the heartstrings, but all that seems to have done is stifle any vibrancy. Almost unbelievably, given what a list of events covered would look like, I found most of Dunkirk tending towards the dull side.

It’s a very well produced and acted dullness, to be sure, but dull nonetheless. Even the young Styles lad holds his own amongst some heavy hitters, but the result, and I accept I’m in the minority here, is not attention grabbing in the slightest.

In this film’s wake, there’s been a resurrection of the talk that Nolan is the new Kubrick, and I feel there’s some truth to this. In particular, that this is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, inasmuch as they’re both immaculately produced films that I don’t really understand the point of, am baffled by the regard they’re held in, and ultimately left cold by.

Oh, and if you think, as the bulk of online outlets seem to be suggesting, that we missed Michael Caine’s cameo, you are wrong. If there is one thing this podcast is uniquely attuned to it is opportunities to use our one hundred percent – one hundred percent, mind you – impersonation of the increasingly nutty right wing firebrand slash beloved actor. He’s like the British Clint Eastwood. I expect him to be lecturing a chair at the next Tory conference.