A plunge into the great­est evac­u­a­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

“You can prac­ti­cally see it from here,’’ says Com­man­der Bolton, the high­est-rank­ing of­fi­cer on the sparse white beaches of Dunkirk. “What?’’ asks a sol­dier. “Home.”

Home. That is the an­chor of Christo­pher Nolan’s re­mark­able Dunkirk, a war film that is not a war film and yet will im­me­di­ately en­ter the ranks of the best war films made so far.

I walked out of the VMAX screen­ing — and this is a movie that must be seen on a large screen — think­ing it de­served 4½ stars. The next morn­ing I de­cided on five.

This score does not mean it’s per­fect. What film is? But it is movie-mak­ing at the high­est level. The last film I thought on the cusp of five stars was Richard Lin­klater’s Boy­hood in 2014. Be­fore that, Ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Tree of Life in 2011, though I did not re­view it.

Dunkirk in north­ern France is 26 miles — as the Bri­tish mea­sure it (42km for us) — from Eng­land. It is 10km from the Bel­gian bor­der.

As the Ger­mans blitzed Europe in the open­ing months of World War II, about 400,000 sol­diers, most of them Bri­tish but in­clud­ing some French, Bel­gian and Cana­dian troops, were stranded at Dunkirk, “fish in a bar­rel”, as one puts it in this film, for the Luft­waffe.

The evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940. It in­volved more than 900 ships, in­clud­ing lots of small craft, some crewed only by civil­ians. On June 4, Win­ston Churchill, prime min­is­ter for 16 days when Op­er­a­tion Dy­namo started, made his fa­mous “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech. The line that is less of­ten quoted is his warn­ing that “wars are not won by evac­u­a­tions”.

Lon­don-born Nolan is a de­lib­er­ate di­rec­tor. Everything that is in one of his movies is there for a rea­son, as is everything that is not. Dunkirk ex­cels on both counts, but it is the sec­ond that I keep think­ing about.

The war is eight months old. Here are some of the people we never see or hear: Churchill, Adolf Hitler, politi­cians, war room gen­er­als. We do not see Ger­man sol­diers (un­til a brief fi­nal scene) or hear the word Nazi. They are “the en­emy”. The valiant rear­guard troops, mostly French, are not in the mix. We do not see much blood, un­like say Mel Gib­son’s fine World War II drama Hack­saw Ridge, and yet the build­ing ten­sion and con­stant fear is al­most un­bear­able.

There is lit­tle di­a­logue. There is no back­story for any of the char­ac­ters; not one, which is some­thing I don’t think I’ve seen in a war Dunkirk: movie. We don’t know where they come from, be­yond their coun­try (and that twists to­wards the end). Of­ten we don’t know their names.

Char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment is min­i­mal to the point of non-ex­is­tent. That’s not a com­plaint. This is one al­most unimag­in­able week in the lives of men we do not know, told in 106 min­utes. When we do learn a tiny bit about a few of them near the end, par­tic­u­larly the civil­ian sailor Mr Daw­son, it is re­al­is­ti­cally sim­ple and deeply mov­ing. I haven’t men­tioned the ac­tors be­cause this film is so immersive it’s al­most as though they are not there. It is the young sol­diers who are there, un­hard­ened boy-men who do not yet know, as we do, the fu­ture enor­mity of this war. We care about them. With the ex­cep­tion of the out­stand­ing Ken­neth Branagh as Com­man­der Bolton, the ac­tors are hard to see.

The lead, if there is one, is a pri­vate named Tommy (20-year-old Fionn White­head in his film de­but). Star singer Harry Styles is an­other pri­vate, Alex. Cil­lian Mur­phy from Peaky Blin­ders is a near-mute shell-shocked sol­dier with no name. The qui­etly com­mand­ing Mark Ry­lance is Mr Daw­son, a tie un­der his jumper. That chameleon Tom Hardy is a Spit­fire pi­lot, so we rarely see his face and when we do it’s masked. The only women are nurses. This is a male­dom­i­nated film. This war is man-made.

All of these ab­sences are there for Nolan’s rea­sons. He did not want to make a sen­ti­men­tal movie, or one de­fined by heroism. He didn’t want to make one about a vic­tory. This is about the sol­diers stranded on a beach and the civil­ians who helped res­cue them.

The ab­sences also counter one of the chal­lenges in mak­ing a movie about such a well­known his­tor­i­cal mo­ment. Any­one who paid at­ten­tion at school knows that Dunkirk is one of the largest mil­i­tary evac­u­a­tions in his­tory. But it’s not the re­sult that mat­ters here. It’s the days, hours, min­utes on the sand, on the pier, in the wa­ter, in the sky. This time is pre­cious and per­ilous. Quiet mo­ments are har­row­ing, such as when Tommy and two mates sit on the beach and watch, with­out re­ac­tion, an­other sol­dier wade into the sea, seek­ing obliv­ion.

So are the ac­tion scenes, es­pe­cially an ex­tended one that par­al­lels a group of sol­diers go­ing un­der­wa­ter on a bul­let-rid­dled small boat and a Spit­fire pi­lot go­ing un­der­wa­ter in his downed plane. Hans Zim­mer’s heart-thump­ing score un­der­pins ev­ery mo­ment.

Nolan has a fas­ci­na­tion for blur­ring time and mem­ory, points of view and iden­tity. As a cin­e­matic tech­nique this per­haps reaches its high point in his mind-bog­gling 2000 film Me­mento, star­ring Aus­tralia’s Guy Pearce. Here it is more sub­tle but dra­matic and poignant. Mr Daw­son’s per­cep­tion of the Spit­fire hit­ting the wa­ter is not the same as the pi­lot’s, and the dif­fer­ence is amaz­ing to watch.

Nolan tells the story from three per­spec­tives: land, sea and air. There is some rep­e­ti­tion and this, too, is quite de­lib­er­ate. It un­der­scores the end­less­ness of what the men are en­dur­ing, an end­less­ness that could end in a sec­ond. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Hoyte van Hoytema shot most of the movie, lo­ca­tion Dunkirk, on IMAX 65mm film and the re­sult is spell­bind­ing.

The aerial bat­tle scenes feel so real that view­ers will check un­der their arm­rests for the cock­pit re­lease lever. Hardy’s pi­lot is calm, cer­tain, do­ing what he knows he has to do. There is no blus­ter, no cheer­ing, no jokes. We see how hard it was for a plane to shoot down an­other plane, the sort of re­al­ity war films of­ten avoid. Sim­i­larly, at sea, we see how quickly boats can sink when bombed or tor­pe­doed. Nolan was able to put into the film 12 boats that were there at Dunkirk in 1940, his­tor­i­cal ves­sels now. I sus­pect these ones were not tor­pe­doed.

The be­hav­iour of the men on the beach is also un­like what we are used to see­ing on the screen. They wait in queues, pa­tiently, in Brodie hel­mets and com­bat gear, for boats to take them home. When the Stukas drop bombs the sol­diers hud­dle on the sand or pier or, if on the sea, dive into the oily wa­ter. What else can they do? There is nowhere to go. They are men who fol­low or­ders, yet some­times their raw hu­man­ness, their need to sur­vive, comes out. One scene, where some sol­diers de­cide one man must be sac­ri­ficed so the rest can live, took me back to Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Lord of the Flies.

Nolan, 46, is the sixth high­est-gross­ing film di­rec­tor. He has made the best Bat­man movie, The Dark Knight, and so­phis­ti­cated sci-fi films such as In­cep­tion and In­ter­stel­lar.

He might not be the first di­rec­tor who comes to mind for a war film. Nor is the high­est-gross­ing di­rec­tor, Steven Spiel­berg, yet he made one of the best, Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan, as well as Schindler’s List. Nor is Stanley Kubrick, who made two mas­ter­pieces 30 years apart, Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket. Like them, Nolan has used an out­sider’s in­tu­ition to create some­thing that will live in­side view­ers.

A scene from the young sol­diers we see are ‘un­hard­ened boy-men who do not yet know the fu­ture enor­mity of this war’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.