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Is it just me? Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk movie has bowled over critics and taken $100m (£77m) at the global box office in barely a week, but it left me cold.
The premise sounds tempting: the legend of Dunkirk movie tells of an array of unprepared civilians crafting an armada of fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, motor launches, paddle steamers, barges and lifeboats to save an army from a battle-swept beach. What might cinema reveal of the logistical skills, resourcefulness, courage, doubts, arguments and fears of the citizenry involved?
Still, Nolan’s movie chooses to neglect tales such as that of the Medway Queen, a paddle steamer that brought home 7,000 troops in seven-round trip and brought down three German planes, or the Royal Daffodil, which returned 9,500 soldiers after blocking a hole under the waterline with a mattress. Instead, we witness just one boat, led by a saintly Mark Rylance, comically attired in his Sunday best. The travails such a figure might have endured were apparently not dramatic enough. Instead, Rylance’s character is subjected to a bizarre set of events garnished with grating sentimentality.
For it is not the dynamics of the people’s armada that catches Nolan’s interest. He is more concerned with what is happening on and above Dunkirk’s beaches. What’s mainly happening, however, is that lots of soldiers are waiting around. Escapades, not altogether convincing, are therefore contrived for a few of them. Some bombs fall, some ships are sunk. Commanders mutter shortly but judiciously to each other. In the skies, fighter pilots conduct what looks like a relentlessly repeated dogfight. One plane runs out of fuel, although not as quickly as audiences might have hoped. And that’s sort of it.
Moviemakers usually infuse interest in their protagonists by giving them backstories and meaningful lines, thus delivering characters who can be engaged in drama. In Dunkirk full movie, these things don’t happen.
The film also denies filmgoers any context. We’re told little about how the army has come to be beached or the threat it faces. We never witness a German soldier, let alone the generals and politicians of either side who are planning events. We don’t even get the customary three sentences of text at the end, explaining the outcome. This is deliberate: Nolan has said he didn’t want to get “bogged down” in politics.
Another flaunted absence is CGI. Scale is the essence of the Dunkirk myth. There were more than 330,000 soldiers on the beach, and 933 British vessels, naval and private, plying the waves. It is for this sort of situation that computers were created, but according to Nolan CGI counts as giving up.
So, in spite of his film’s $150m budget, the Royal Air Force seems to consist of three Spitfires, although real-life pilots flew 3,500 sorties at Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe, which Hitler made only responsible for wiping out the beached Brits, appears capable of summoning up little more than a couple of Messerschmitts, three Stukas and one bomber. The Royal Navy appears to comprise just two destroyers; in fact, it deployed 39 destroyers and 309 other craft.
Women are excluded from the action by being stuck to stereotypical roles, such as serving tea for the homecoming menfolk. In real life, female Auxiliary Territorial Service telephonists – who received two-thirds of a male soldier’s pay – were some of the last military personnel to leave the beach. The evacuees also involved female civilians, including girls, caught up in the commotion.
The restrictions Nolan places on himself have been cited to demonstrate his brilliance as a director. Not for him the humdrum apparatus of lesser directors. His film must be pared back so it can home in on its true subject. Which is what, exactly? Don’t be silly, the reviewers sigh: it is the terror of war as never before. OK, got that, one more stab at war-is-hell. Except that Dunkirk is no such thing. It is a 12A effort that avoids blood and guts as thoroughly as it avoids so much else. In the movie, people struck by bombs die discreetly, with no improper dismemberment. Even abandoning a torpedoed ship doesn’t seem too unpleasant. So the movie doesn’t, as claimed, make you feel the terror of those it depicts. Why not?
Well, Dunkirk isn’t actually a war film at all – Nolan tells us so. That is why it doesn’t concern itself with “the bloody aspects of combat”. Instead, it is “a survival story, and first and foremost a suspense film”, according to the director.
A survival story, like Gravity, perhaps? But Dunkirk’s soldiers are rejected the means of effecting their own lives, and it is in this that their pathos resides. Their unheroic fate is to mill around on a beach and get ferried home by non-combatants. Signaller Alfred Baldwin, who appeared at Dunkirk in 1940, recalled: “You had the impression of folks standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving.”
Or is it a suspense film, like Rear Window? We all know the outcome of the event, and know that nothing terribly bad was ever going to happen to Harry Styles, Captain Rylance or our plucky pilots. Even Hans Zimmer’s manipulative score can’t make that brick out of this straw.
But at least I now understand why I didn’t get it: there was nothing to get. Nolan trades on a mystique fuelled by affectations such as mangled timeframes and IMAX cameras. In the film, the complications of chronology seem silly, and the naturalistic environment exposes this. I traveled to Leicester Square in London to get the full experience of the 70mm picture, but I didn’t quite catch any. Indeed, I thought the subject would have been better suited to the cold, TV-news glare of digital than the lushness of film.
Yet, Warner Brothers and the world look delighted to indulge Nolan. Good luck to him, not that he seems to need it.