No guts but plenty of glory

The great­est spec­ta­cle of the summer puts all others to shame, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - Tara Brady

DUNKIRK Di­rected by Christo­pher Nolan. Star­ring Fionn White­head, Tom Glynn-Car­ney, Jack Low­den, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Ken­neth Branagh, Cil­lian Mur­phy, Mark Ry­lance, Tom Hardy. Cert 12A, gen re­lease, 106mins Re­mem­ber that mo­ment in The Simp­sons when Troy McClure dis­misses Homer’s pitch by say­ing: “But they’ve al­ready made some movies about World War II”? De­spite be­ing the sec­ond film this year (af­ter Their Finest) to fea­ture the “mir­a­cle of Dunkirk”, Christo­pher Nolan’s 10th fea­ture is a gam­ble. The sec­ond World War film is hardly vogu­ish and this par­tic­u­lar war film doesn’t play by the rules.

There are no Amer­i­cans nor, in­deed, Nazis, to be found. There is hardly any blood, and noth­ing like guts. There are big-name ac­tors, such as Tom Hardy, but Hardy, who is caught up in aerial dog­fights and muf­fled by an oxy­gen mask (a nod, per­haps, to Bane), says very lit­tle, even to his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer (an un­seen Michael Caine, chan­nelling Churchill over the ra­dio). Speak­ing of which: there isn’t even a shot of Churchill.

It’s not even a war film in the truest sense, as it concerns it­self en­tirely with Op­er­a­tion Dy­namo, the mas­sive 1940 evac­u­a­tion which saw 338,226 sol­diers res­cued by some 800 com­man­deered boats. Nolan’s script is writ­ten from three per­spec­tives: from land, sea and air, and cre­ates con­sid­er­able sus­pense by cross-cut­ting be­tween Bri­tish forces, us­ing a com­plex time di­la­tion scheme, as they weather a re­lent­less as­sault from the Luft­waffe. Don’t worry too much about the schemat­ics: the mo­men­tum will carry you along, re­gard­less.

As the film opens, a rab­ble of young Tom­mys, in­clud­ing Fionn White­head, are bom­barded with leaflets de­mand­ing sur­ren­der. They seek droplets of wa­ter in hosepipes and cig­a­rette butts in aban­doned ash­trays be­fore com­ing un­der fire. When they fi­nally make their way to the tit­u­lar beach, they meet thou­sands of other men in the same, ter­ri­ble predica­ment. Sur­rounded and trapped by the en­emy, they make des­per­ate, flail­ing at­tempts to board or cling to war­ships, or any­thing that floats, but the ves­sels are con­stantly bom­barded.

Spit­fires (flown by Tom Hardy and Jack Low­den) at­tempt to fend off the Luft­waffe, while back in Britain ev­ery avail­able boat – fish­ing, plea­sure and life – sets sail with the in­ten­tion of bring­ing the boys back home.

The rel­a­tively short trek back to Britain is mad­den­ing for both the men and their su­pe­ri­ors. “You can prac­ti­cally see it from here,” fur­rows Ken­neth Branagh’s com­mand- er, with a frus­tra­tion that al­most feels like a de­lib­er­ate an­ti­dote to his cock­sure Henry V. A kindly Mark Ry­lance cap­tains one of the plucky civil­ian boats that, ul­ti­mately, form a rous­ing pa­tri­otic res­cue ef­fort – re­plete with a blast of El­gar and a read­ing of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Com­mons. But be­fore then there is the messy, un­pleas­ant busi­ness of bat­tle. Help­ful young­ster Ge­orge (Barry Keoghan) falls foul of a shell-shocked sol­dier (Cil­lian Mur­phy). Else­where, a group of in­creas­ingly des­per­ate grunts, in­clud­ing Alex (Harry Styles: yes, he can act) and Gib­son (Aneurin Barnard) squab­ble in the scram­ble to es­cape.

The no­tion of pure cinema – or Cinéma pur – sprouted from Dadaist ex­per­i­men­ta­tions dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s and refers to art that sim­ply could not ex­ist in any other medium. While lengthy sec­tions of say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Ver­tigo could pass for film that is “com­plete”, pure cinema rarely es­capes its avant-garde ori­gins. Since Nanook of the North (1927), it has proved a use­ful guid­ing prin­ci­ple for doc­u­men­taries, par­tic­u­larly such city sym­phonies as Man with A Movie Camera and I Am Cuba. It has helped power along the de­light­fully de­mented im­agery of Ale­jan­dro Jodor­owsky and An­drei Tarkovsky.

Yet con­tem­po­rary at­tempts to create en­tirely immersive cinema – see Gas­par Noé’s Love and stay tuned for Ter­rence Mal­ick’s abysmal Song to Song – have mostly floun­dered.

Ku­dos, there­fore, to Nolan for ris­ing to the chal­lenge. Tak­ing cues from such tac­tile Soviet war films as Come and See, Nolan’s Dunkirk is en­tirely ex­pe­ri­en­tial, yet en­tirely with­out gore. There is no chat­ter about sweet­hearts back home; there is only the im­pulse to es­cape and sur­vive. Hans Zim­mer’s pound­ing score – a sym­phony that draws loudly from in­com­ing fire, heart­beat, and fi­nally, Nim­rod – am­pli­fies the ris­ing panic. Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera buzzes through the skies and across sea and sand.

Nolan is known to be a Lud­dite as film di­rec­tors go, so Dunkirk has been fash­ioned with min­i­mal CGI, us­ing real aero­planes, people and equip­ment where pos­si­ble, and shot on the beaches in France where the events de­picted took place. Thou­sands of ex­tras and a long-re­tired French war­ship, the Maillé-Brézé, were in­volved in the ef­fort. The crunch­ing re­al­ism, as cap­tured on large for­mat film stock, is un­mis­tak­able, and puts ev­ery other ri­val summer spec­ta­cle to shame.

If you didn’t be­lieve in the “Mir­a­cle of Dunkirk” be­fore, you will now.

Bring­ing the boys home

Com­man­der Bolton, played by Ken­neth Branagh, con­tem­plates the short trip back to Britain

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