Dunkirk : A Film Review

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Dunkirk

Director, Christopher Nolan. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas.Written by Christopher Nolan. Cast, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy. Music by Hans Zimmer. Cinematography Hoyte van Hoytema. Edited by Lee Smith. Production companies, Syncopy Inc. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Duration,  1hr 46mins. Country, United Kingdom. Cert. 12a

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Reality is a different thing

A Narrow Sea.                                                                                                                       Every fully formed war film is required to adhere to the history formed beforehand without too much movement to alternative disparate views unless it is to provoke an alteration in the mindset held in perpetuity.  Very clearly Christopher Nolan in firstly conceiving of this depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation is steadfastly complicit in the narrative of heroic proportions in its fullest conception, delivered and spun as a decisive turning point of the Second World War in the sounds of Churchill shaping the morale of the soldiers families sacrificed, lost at war and not returning these 300,000 upwards of 350,000 perhaps, of the troops, massed on the foreshore of Dunkerque  – the French seaport in N France: site of the evacuation of a British expeditionary force, generally taken as 330,000 men who were under German fire May 29–June 4, 1940 have long been memorized in the accounts of the conflict of nations.  The French were to suffer long after under their occupied lands and Great Britain had been fending for itself without the American assistance which culminated in the D-Day landings and bombing raids where frequent across the British aisles.  The Warships and Fleet of the Navy were constructed by the efforts of one nation to be a seafaring warrior invincible force or as its motto pronounces –

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“Si vis pacem, para bellum” (Latin); “If you wish for peace, prepare for war”

Seagoing vessels were the materials of war in the face of a stranded army of the numbers reaching 400,000.  A city population.  A measure, in only small proportion, of the military engaged in the War.  Yet it was of unconscionable, irrational and unparelleled significance for a relatively small and diverse nation like Great Britain and Northern Ireland to believe it had come to this.  So early in the War a catastrophe had been encountered and seen off albeit at great cost.

Here in Northern Ireland mortar shells and aircraft where made and ships repaired, sent out again to the battle for freedom. Other nations sent their battleships.

The troops stranded were of all ranks and former occupations.  So we’re the masters of the little armada across the channel.

Virtue is requisitioned for the parade of heroics on the screen. The Everyman character of a South coast pleasure craft boatman in the shape of Mark Rylance who plays a key role in framing the ordinary understanding of militarism.  Set against the other roles of Army Colonel    Whose men are ranged along the beach of Dunkirk, all 400,000 of them, against the fleets force of around 50,000 to 70,000 there is a conflict of man management ranged along the stretch of the Mole jutting out from the port into deep waters.  The draft of low and high water, as Kenneth Branagh playing the shoreline commander,  advises his Army counterpart of the realities and nearness of danger, in some 21 feet, while both witness and are part of the shearing of piers structure in parts in the strange of heavy bombardment by German fighter planes targeting them and the prone beach. This is a Theatre of breathtaking life taking jeopardy and multi stories of bravery weave in and out against the backdrop of a constantly returning sky and ceaselessly flowing tides.  On the tides of men journeys are taken as the conditions present.  Ships, even Hospital Ships are no safe heaven, some even becoming victims of the constant barrage from above.  The Royal Marines are also in close proximity as agents of the Navy and Infantry which is summed up in their motto –

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“Per Mare, Per Terram” (Latin); “By Sea, By Land”  Royal Marines.

As this was a conflict with opportunist pilots of the Luftwaffe targeting the beachheads and any approaching or leaving vessels the strength of the Spitfires and the training of British pilots was a key element and behind the visors of three Spitfires feature some of the dramatic air dogfights and in a suitably masterful expedious treatment the Tom Hardy we relate to is a standout hero of invincible acuity.   He brings hindsight – the Directors fashioned role relating writers conceited backward motioned nod to the British Bulldog and delivers in waves.  Whether he is a victim of the deep or survives is for you to find out.

The role of the Infantry is very interesting in the whole composite of War.  They are the masses and in this film they are the victims alive or dead.  Captain of the tiny Moonstone vessel Mark Rylance ponders this axiom in the spoils of War.  The spent shellshocked men who live and will survive to march on Remembrance Sunday remembering their comrades and even families bombed in uderground railway stations or their homes.  The indivisible invisible death toll mere memory.  Mark Rylance has reflected on it to his youngest son, the eldest having flown a Hurricane.  He puts the imparted knowledge of his son into full speed dial at the helm of his boat in the face of danger the nearer they are to France.

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Recreating History
In the recently broadcast Reith Lecture choreographed by the indulgent Sue Lawley, Hillary Mantell strifes gallantly to address the consciousness of raw History by telling us in mild self adulation that she ‘got the reformation done in two pages.’ History is as you navigate it and the preposterously Catholic hating or hurtfully damaging, telling of the brush strokes of Cromwellian liquidity was moderately annoying in the books themselves. They are big selling books with hierarchical hubris and English conceit pressed and sold in vast blocks of paper. The film Dunkirk has a backdrop in which Historical advisor Joshua Levine states “Everything that’s celebrated about World War II – in Britain, in the United States and …. is about the preservation of freedom”. So Christopher Nolan is caught finely balancing too much glorification of the spirit delivering the evacuation and the enormity of the catastrophic losses and effect on moral brought about by the cornering of 400,000 British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops.

Taking the participation of the removal commanders, with Kenneth Branagh prominent as the British Naval Commander who strides the border in Dunkirk between land and sea with the knowledge the tidal difference is 21 feet between tides and the majority of the time it has a shallow draft beach which is suitable over long periods to land small craft only and evacuate as many as possible. 26 miles separate England and France. Stories overlap in this multilayered film as many incidents are followed as they occur in long passages over a week say with the troops stranded for over a week, the Spitfires in action in just a day and in rough seas the boat crossing over 12 hours passage.

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Factual portrayal
While Writer, Director, Producer, has set aside using CGI and has mounted a three tiered plot interweave it has in all three elements large gaps un-filled. The beach warfare may be suitable, but not in my mind, for a younger audience, the darker, weather beaten, weakened force who have trekked to this staging post to find it is not an established escape route, are themselves embattled and are by the fact 16 groups of Infantry form a bastion of defense all around Dunkirk, this element does not feature. It also for my viewing begun with a shaky start as a more film school prologue in its arrival of a group of soldiers and they have not yet reached the Infantry line and the soldiers on that line practically stand up in the face of gunfire from an unseen enemy. There is no enemy seen, even in the Messerschmidt’s our on the ground. So it lacks credibility on those counts in my mind.

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On the sea there are several things despite the magnitude of the production which the production designer has dropped in some unaccountable scenes of a small flotilla seen at a critical point as if Enid Blyton like, the Famous Five have arrived and the very, very, heavy densely packed seas are a tokenistic gestural vision.  Even the lack of Warships is noticeable.  The French, Belgian, Dutch, English vessels which lifted 95% of the survivors were unaccounted for visually.  The weather also played a part in the sky as well as the beaches and the cloud cover was much heavier.  The Spitfire combat sorties were much bigger.  Two squadrons each time with air time of no greater than just around an hour came to 24 Spitfires.  A group of fighter planes no matter how effective and startling they convey the rawness of the or mission fell well below actual events and in more were conducted in more compact and hostile weather windows.  We see instead a trio of planes in most action.

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Technique
Every sequence is differently approached. For the filming of the air battles it is the vastness of panoramas IMAX is deployed. Very little us of CGI or underpinning digital effects is utilised. In doing this the audience is pulled into the action in as realistic a way as Cinema can provide in the comfort of a movie theatre. Primarily it is a world away from actual events and due to its familiarity as a feature of the British inherent spirit long embraced, it is harder to suspend the immersion and maintain viscerally the connections sought through the screen.

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Very little can be faulted in the enormous logistical planning and forming of each time cycle with its fast interweaving edit by Lee Smith. Cinematography by Hoyle van Hoytema. Special effects supervisor Scott Fisher co-ordinating a legion of extras as stunt men – the credit roll shows a vast number of participants – in perilous uniform motion diving from ships, climbing ropes, ditching from planes boats and bridges, along with the onrush of cascades of water within confined below decks, tilting sinking footholds and the rip of explosions behind in from and on top of the many deployed in scenes of hugely impressive action sequences.

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The onward beat of the several lucky strikes, unlucky strike conveyed the bitter irony of the arbitrary nature of victim and survivor. Medals are despatched with notes and worn in memorial and posthumously by the few who saved the many and sacrificed unfathomable courage and their psyche to the destructive violations of war. Ever town has its memorial and each is related to particular events formed under the broad church of what is know as World War II. For the task the technique of IMAX utilised before in The Dark Knight, along with those that followed, Inception, Interstellar, gave creative credibility to scenes with a tautness, fixity, and tension unnerving absorbent.

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Cockpit scenes in particular are key to this connectivity of motion, while scenes skip from the burning oil slicks of sinking ships with men floating every which way and submerging, bouncing on the rough seas, some atrophied corpses not suitable in either imaged or perceived form for young audiences given the determination of the production to convey the brutal ‘nature’ of war.  Wide shots of static Spitfire with the pilot maneuvering to which we are quickly returned as cockpit scenes sometimes in submersion tanks take on a screen wide frame of the pilot working out what to do next.

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Natures is life’s balance and the removal from of life artificially through abhorrent actions and resulting tragedy is very difficult to absorb even cinematically.  It has the effect of being voyeuristic and removed while done in the name of ‘informative entertainment’ drawing you into a consumption of a false concoction of a historical unfathomable, except for those who were present, even then their memory has sent the worst of the experiences to the depths of their minds beyond everyday retrieval but instantly recalled.

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I went away recalling the pacing of the frames as in beats of five, five, for around particular scenes the jeopardy is quickly drawn in, five, five then as the science became more intense closing in on conclusion, it became three, three, and over it built a factory of sound echoing and firing around the walls of the cinema ramped up indecorously by the overly absurd music of Hans Zimmer. I was put off by much of the score for reasons put down below. The pilots I reference in Primary Roles below.

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Primary roles
Mark Rylance is the common denominator I take, in firstly describing the cadence of this Movie epic. It has no restful reflective moments.  Except one or two in the reading of text on the way home and on arrival – in England where apparent insults and majorly mistaken guilty bitterness of a survivor who is processing his survival it is already a case of wrong interpretation as reflection begins.

Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, is for me a key entry to this film and it’s construct. He is an acknowledged master of the stage an fully versed in directorial tasks. It is his stage presence he relies on here. He is not concealing his nature but immediately strikes you as what he projects. A man in his late fifties, a pleasure craft boatman in Weymouth Harbour with a 19 year old son Peter, very neatly played by Tom Glynn-Carney sidestepping the more ‘deliberate’ style of Rylance, creating his own in what is a confined environment of the boat, to assist and share the short journey across the sea to Dunkirk. The boat is a mini theatre like a stage inviting into its world stranded soldiers, airmen, and important amongst them it the battle worn unarmed character played by Cillian Murphy. As Moonstone leaves Weymouth Peter’s friend George leaps on board and he is determined to have a role. He is played by the very young Barry Keoghan expertly in shy reservation once on board this haphazard cause. Young Barry (George) has gathered in a number of recent roles and a while back appeared in ’71’. He also has a presence in the Irish TV drama, ‘Love/Hate’ so is no stranger to creating a self image of the role he takes on here with brilliance again, as with Peters role, a measured layered performance.

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The boat also brings out the claustrophobic mind adopted in war situations. Adaptability is no stranger to tight situations and Cillian Murphy majorly fails to adapt having gone through one version of hell. This is why the boat is symbolic of the drift of war violent and subdued at the mercy of outside things off stage and on it.

To be apart of an ‘orchestra’ scored and conducted by US/UK citizen Christopher Nolan, it is proper to set aside the small tokens of acting currency and rely on firmer and clearly understood portrayal of the person within the event. Multiple viewpoints are used in the intrinsic three act memorial to a time which has fastened onto the British psyche for better or worse. Despair is kept hidden and remorse and memorial elevated so the bulldog spirit can be called upon as is the root and knot of the Dunkirk spirit.

Nolan has through necessity found a way to inter weave the various components of the evacuation by segmenting Infantry, Naval, Airborne sequences in a series of set pieces. In the very beginning, Fionn Whitehead playing Tommy as the young soldier having made it to Dunkirk with a few of his comrades, on arrival on the beach he is without a regiment and he encounters another loner, Aueurin Barnard as Gibson, busily burying a soldier in sand. For the story of the Infantry men Nolan takes this ‘model’ soldier to interpret the trap of the beach and he takes his story to other places, sometimes confined, sometimes alone again and it mixes claustrophobic environments with, proximity, close proximity to death. Attempts at leaving are thwarted several times and likewise onboard frigates there is no certainty of escape. One scene relatively short on dialogue like most of the film, a conversation on escape routes from below deck. Every vessel hold has a submarine type door locking and compartmenting zones of the ship. Escape hatches are needed in and are sometimes the only means of escape. The frenzy of the moment of survival is sharply hit like a tuning fork alarm reverberating under water heightening enclosure.

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The RAF despatched fighter planes, Spitfire’s for brief combat sorties and our introduction is into the cockpit of plane where their base controller (sounding a lot like a muffled Michael Caine – playing Commander Maurice Michelwaite?) briefs them on the fuel carried. The pilots are Collins, the youngest, played by Jack Lowden. Tom Hardy plays Farrier and he is small enough and physically and mentally well cast as the rest bust leader of the squadron. His fixity to objects was a talisman. Every loft of the head, hand, adjustment was noticed and noted as precise as would be required.
Bring in Luftwaffe planes as tailgaters and every manoeuvre can be your last one. Over the boats and over frigates targeted by the Luftwaffe planes the planes would dogfight with witnesses in the boats below. The pontoon built on the rocky breakwater known as the mole jutting even further out into the Channel was another site of claustrophobic warfare as hordes of troops packed onto its whole length in readiness when summoned to embark upon a moored vessel. Farrier overfly this as do the bombing German planes and the random hits are arbitrarily the bringer of fate.

Historical drama, be it costume drama – along the lines of a Wolf Hall and the Elizabethan fairy cake dalliances are designed to serve up an expected version. This too as a Historical drama has to conform to the widely held perspective, looking backwardly into a dark history as the narrative and direction takes on itself the tones and words of a dark perilous fate, while viscerally discharging, with a roll of the dice, sacrifice in the lives of men under semi directional bombs and mortars. Scenes of carnage on a scale unprecedented in military warfare are captured and sent into the history books as events with casualties living and dead.

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Key to Reading the Film                                                                                                    Mark Rylance is for me a key entry to this film and it’s construct. He is an acknowledged master of the stage an fully versed in directorial tasks. It is his stage presence he relies on in not concealing his nature but immediately strikes you as what he projects. A man in his late fifties, a pleasure craft boatman in Weymouth Barbour with a son to assist and share the short journey across the sea to Dunkirk. To b apart of an orchestra scored and conducted by US/UK citizen Chrstopher Nolan it is proper to set aside the small tokens of acting currency and rely on firmer and clearly understood portrayal of the person within the event. Multiple viewpoints are used in the intrinsic three act memorial to a time which has fastened onto the British psyche for better or worse. Despair is kept hidden and remorse and memorial elevated so the bulldog spirit can be called upon as is the root and knot of the Dunkirk spirit.

Mark Rylance has created many roles but in taking on in Peter Kominsky’s TV movie the role of The Government Inspector I’m afraid he was beaten to the delivery of the punch in my view as it was more brilliantly played (on The National Theatre Olivier stage) by Rik Mayall who was compellingly brilliant and I revisited it as it was an astounding production a number of times now less enthralling then when first encountered. So the BFG is not on Rik’s roster.

Sound sculpting
There is in view of the broad brush strokes of epic film making, without for long periods any dialogue other than formal outbursts and acknowledgement, recognition, signaling, an overtly simple reliance on the auditory experience. Mixed into the cocktail of petrol laden sound of mechanical collapse and engine expulsions are the over layered raw sounds from the music repertoire. With no hint of irony, Germans don’t do irony, Hans Zimmer adulterates firstly Edward Elgars Nimrod whose whole metre is one toxically balanced on the hatred of loss and final judgement. The Enigma Variation is very crudely deployed for popular audience consumption and it stigmatises otherwise photographically infusing moments. A relentless barrage of gut and wire (the violin is such a beast) is suffused into a digitised melancholy savagely corrupted as ‘experience of wars corruption’ inset as a pedal of connective minor scales and frivolous tinkering on a carefully realised piece of adored music. It would not work in its unadulterated form neither would it convey appropriately the sense it sets out to project.

It irritates and diminishes the whole.  Elgar had originated the piece as one of a combination of pieces illustriously, industriously, as epigraphs of people and characterises live’s with a humanistic majesty lasting way beyond this removal.  It’s like being at a wake in a parallel universe. Hans Zimmer uses with similar ignorance and brutal thievery, Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings. It has been done to near extinction by such as Yamashta, Dolby and less adequately by any number of chill baroque artists. Along with Pachabel (not used) Elgar is noted in credits while Albinoni is not. The adulteration is just as bad. In sequences of resolving the events just experienced, the music overlayering of the adagio, is sequentially interrupted in an almost loop version, before, until, until, sic, its resurrection, in an uplifting deliverance of the denouement familiar to a great number.

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It is another irony that Tomas Albinoni, Vienna 1671-1751, was unknown to the 20th century music world until a sonata was discovered in the ruins of a library the Allies bombed in Dresden in World War II. An Italian, Remus Giazotto, created from it the piece we now know, which itself must have and does in his arrangement, alter the baroque melody within. It takes on a Vivaldi like distinction he may have eschewed (probably accounting for musicologist’s turning their cloth ears away from it). The discovery lead to the recovery in the annals of his place in music history of several other pieces and I have a 1995 EMI edition of Concertos and Sonatas illustrated with a painting in The Louvre, Titelseite, En couverture: “Concert”. It has three sets of performers, Orchestre de Chambre Toulouse, Würtembergisches Kammerorchester and The English Chamber Orchestra. Engineered at Abbey Road. So it covers as a legacy of music a singularly liberal and wide history of our listening.

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For Sale. The figures of Christopher Nolan films in net income are staggering and they are redefining the way epic films are made. No longer are the heights of usual event films such as Star Wars able to conform to raised expectations and never make it to the award ceremonies with any advancing clamour. The Dark Knight Trilogy was a series of inventive leaps of imagination utilising a Mercedes SUV mounted crane, its equivalent being a water based catamaran with the nimble fast throttle needed to deploy its 26 feet long telescoped IMAX camera at sea level and over and above action. The reconstruction brought in adapted gaint replica ships, as minesweepers readapted for example to be destroyers, and within the Moonstone the bulk of wide screen hand held camera filming required a lot of planning and effort so as to not prolong the shoot to levels of exhaustion. Rain and the elements of offshore winds and tidal surges conducted their own manners on actors who took on the sense of the drama as well as many Dunkirk residents as extras whose place in the work added for many a real sense of historical unfolding events that preceded them.
Craft of every kind were sequestered and today if not sold already their is a 1926 sailing barge, 86 feet long called Xylonite which took on a role of conveyance but it will cost you £450,000 to acquire and its second hand. It is in the Limehouse basin.

 

Conclusion ####4

There is no doubting the production achievement of this task of portraying the unimaginable scale and magnitude of the event we refer to as Dunkirk.  The expansive far reaching form of the film is searching through depiction of real events the sequence and efforts put in place for the evacuation of around 400,000 troops by the assorted allies of French, Belgian, Dutch, English sea going vessels and the armada of small boats here represented totemically by the Moostone which forms a fulcrum of balancing fate and tragedy. Christopher Nolan is primarily an auteur of the kind which imagines juxtaposed conflicting memory and alternative viewpoints. From the time we see one of the principal actors, Kenneth Branagh as the Colonel set onto land or a pontoon as the person in total command of the evacuation it is apparent this drama is to be bold and as accurately conveyed as is possible.  Even with the mastery of a legion of production elements and the brilliance of the interweave which is at levels rarely seen in Cinema and indeed heightened by the distinction, literally brought to the screen – very clear and apparent as not digitized in the broad sweeping cinematography as whole coastlines and sky is evident in its presence before your eyes, also expanded by IMAX delivery of which I’ve put in quite a few notes on how it is achieved, the whole composition is a reach towards a reality we never visited nor are even capable of receiving.  The drama is not Shakesperian, Becktettian, Millar or Welles in its heft for our perception of an unreachable truth but a very dogged attempt with severe limitations in providing an immersive experience in recognition of the act of courageous determined bravery and the cowardice of war in confronting the reality of a failure in ourselves which brought mankind to this.  Repeatedly.  One thing I see rewarding in this is the shock of War and the fact this is rated as a 12a.  Parents should be aware it has not received this from a softened projection of War but because it has not relied on bloody scenes of shock value maiming and un implied violent acts.  Instead it is very clearly a violence in the aftermath of explosions where drownings, disappearances, loss of ships. planes, troops shown in the grave moment of loss and the suffering is very potent.  Seeing men floating in boiling oil and submerging to avoid that burning fate of death as given the choice between it or drowning it is I believe a purpose of Nolan to convey to the young – don’t become involved in war.  In fact don’t sanction others to go to war.

As Colonel Branagh directs the only ‘joke’ or lighthearted banter of the film to a group of arriving small vessel rescuers it’s a biter/sweet moment which falls on a worn path lacking insisive alacrity.  It is a mere indication of the impossible transposition of viewer into this scenario as being hidden from view in immense proportions.  Far from providing it with gravitas it spells other voids.  When another conversation between D’Arcy commanding the Infantry and Branagh takes sight of ships, the growling lipless KB summons an element of facial relief and the result is pale when you take account of – the lack of scope for KB – the dramatic intent.  Somehow it is vexed and awkward despite its purposeful conveyance.  That is not to deride anyone on the score of the portrayal but to fasten onto the point that drama has to be segmented much more incisively and rawly to be drama.  We learn through this film but it is primarily not its function to be valued but to be taken on the tide of other versions, other war films as entry to the complexities of conflict.  Others – recently Churchill, previously The Imitation Game, came at the subject in oblique abstractions with sole events making up around ssixty seventy percent of the storyband the wider bigger scale providing context and connection.  The smaller stories are here but the big connective pieces are not – the prologue, the aftermath, the embedded centre and the enemies viewpoint.  It’s understably complex and this is a bold and excellent attempt but it certainy underscores the brutality of the whole event.

 

John Graham

21 July 2017

Belfast

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