Dunkirk (2017)

by sfe medusa

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(dir. Christopher Nolan)

There’s been a bit of a (rather apt) divide over this film, and to give the game away in the first sentence I’ll say I am stubbornly and implacably stationed in the ‘for’ camp. So I’m going to shake up my normal review format and wax lyrical about this film in the form of an arguably Plato-esque discourse, between me and exactly everyone else who I’ve spoken to who has expressed a negative view about Christopher Nolan’s latest WWII-themed feature.

EXACTLY EVERYONE ELSE WHO I’VE SPOKEN TO WHO HAS EXPRESSED A NEGATIVE VIEW ABOUT CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S LATEST WWII-THEMED FEATURE (from now on we’ll refer to them as EE for ease): It’s all a bit BNP, isn’t it?

ME: You know what this is actually a nascent point. I genuinely had a bulbous tear that lingered in my right eye at a very crucial but Britain-centric moment featuring Kenneth Branagh (who we’ll argue about in a second), but was unsure whether to discreetly wipe it out or just remain looking weirdly stoic (well, stoic according to any media representation of impassioned football fans) because both options felt like I’d suddenly sprouted English flag tattoos on my biceps.
We won’t get into an argument about whether getting emotional about the idea of a home land means you want to leave the EU (although Steve Rose has raised some great points about it) but it’s interesting to think of how this celebration of Britishness fits into the current political climate, and not just because ol’ Nige tweeted a photo of himself looking a bit gormless in front of the film’s poster. The enemy is completely faceless, and you barely see any bloodshed at all in the film, so even though Nolan is describing genuine warfare, the feeling that actually pervades is one of paranoia, anxiety and dread, which feels very characteristic of today’s confused attitudes.

EE: Kk kl. So back to Kenneth Branagh. He was TERRIBLE. I couldn’t even hear what he was saying at the start.

ME: You know what, samesies. Branagh’s character, the naval Commander Bolton, engages in some foggy strategic conversation on getting the 400,000 British soldiers home across the 26-mile Channel. This only serves to show the frustratingly insoluble task of what should be a jump, skip and a hop, like trying to get a Southeast train to Croydon on time. While under life-threatening siege too, of course.
And second up, U JOKIN’? Branagh’s facial expression skills were tip-top in helping him carry off the delivery of some pretty wince-worthy lines about “home”.

EE: Are you sure the quality of the film was down to the flexibility of Kenneth Branagh’s facial muscles rather than Hans Zimmer’s killer soundtrack?

ME: BUT HOW CAN A MOUTH BE SO PAPER-THIN YET SPEAK TOMES WITH ITS MOVEMENTS!??!?! Anyway. Yep, Zimmer does his usual floor-sweep with sound that barely lets you catch your breath, also lending a large contribution to the film’s knack of not having you blink for 2 hours. Nolan and Zimmer again employ the magic Shepard tone to create the illusion of a never-ending swell of sound, to further entrench that Wolf Creek-esque feeling that the troops are getting nowhere in terms of escape.

EE:  That’s the thing isn’t it, it all feels a bit… nowhere. No context, no explanations. Of course that feeling of limbo is the point, and the sudden fluctuations between hope and disaster lends the film a gripping narrative… but it feels difficult to connect with these soldiers because I don’t really know who they are, and I don’t think I really care.. (Am I heartless?)

ME: Not at all, fellow reckoner. Fionn Whitehead points out in his Film4 interview the mundanity of the characters’ monosyllabic names; these boys could be anybody’s sons. What makes them interesting is not that they have a sick mother back home, or an impregnated German lover, or that their father never believed in them. It’s their behaviour and actions during war. Putting themselves on the line to save others, the virile guilt and shame for going home, the will to survive and the shellshocked trauma.
During the battles the soldiers weren’t caught up in Churchill’s ardent arguments behind closed doors, they were ordinary and on the ground. Kudos to Nolan for staying true to this and still creating a strong plot whose nuances didn’t need to be spoon-fed, something I always always look out for in storytelling.
THAT said, I’m not sure the story would be as enthralling as it was were it not due to the director’s use of his infamous “Nolan Time”, as coined by Vulture‘s David Edelstein. The trio of timescales in Dunkirk was brilliant, but it’s a trick that risks becoming a bit of a ‘go-to’ cheat if overused.

EE: He does hold your attention throughout, I’ll give him that. All his aesthetics come together beautifully; that airy colour scheme of duck egg, light sand and avocado skin, genius sound design that at times feels sanity-invading, those dizzying shots of endless sky where trying to gun down a Luftwaffe feels like trying to stab a mosquito with a needle. And of course, the morose and endless beach. It feels completely exposed and dangerous, total no man’s land.

ME: No-lan’s land?

EE: Too far.

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