Sunday, 4 March 2018


It isn't hard to understand the popularity of Dunkirk, which comes to us as part of a celebration of Churchill's early days and the eponymous evacuation of British forces from France in the early days of World War II. One could draw the obvious analogy with today's European crisis, Brexit, and Dunkirk is the easiest of this year's four films (Churchill, Darkest Hour and Their Finest) to break down in those terms, but it's more deeply-seated than that. Because what Dunkirk celebrates, and what the event is celebrated for, is British understatement, and the stiff-upper lip.

It's an understated film, especially considering the size of the Dunkirk enterprise, which here is scaled down to one beach, a couple of ships and a handful of boats. Everything goes into narrow focus, even the timeline, which is shifted to allow the three strands of the story to coincide at their climaxes. As with most Christopher Nolan films, time is of the essence, and the structure of Dunkirk, while it seemed to befuddle a number of critics, is not that hard to follow. I am not sure what it adds in terms of story-telling apart from perhaps distracting from the narrowness of the strands, as if to provide them with more collective weight. Those strands are the story of two 'lost' soldiers trying desperately to get off the beach, and contrasted with the officers in charge, one boat's journey across the Channel, and two fliers trying to provide air cover for the evacuees.

Understatement is celebrated along with the stiff upper lip, and they don't come much stiffer, although this, oddly, is somewhat class-conscious. The soldiers on the beach, inured to queueing, occasionally moan about their situation, but the two who are two main figures keep remarkably silent. One for very good reason, and when that reason is revealed, the British soldiers turn on him with remarkable xenophobic vigour. Oddly, the ordinary soldiers are the least convincing in costume: it's hard not to see them as modern actors. In the officer class, however, the stiff-upper lip holds. Kenneth Branagh literally has no upper lip, but as is common with his serious roles, he seems more to be playing Trevor Howard or Noel Coward playing a naval officer, than an actual naval officer.

Upper lips don't come much more stiff than Mark Rylance's from whose lips words emerge only after great effort. Were he to play the lead in a Pinter play I assume time itself might stop. Rylance's pained looks epitomise the British desire to overcome hardship, including the somewhat unnecessary hardship he makes for himself in his handling of the shell-shocked officer he picks up, whose lip has unstiffened to the point of liquidity. This creates a tragedy which Rylance has to let go, a symbol of the sacrifices we all must make, and of the creation of heroic myth (which anticipates Their Finest Hour to a T, or tea.) For all that, Rylance absolutely steals the show. And finally to Tom Hardy, as the last of the Spitfire pilots, whose understated tactic is simply not to talk at all, except for a few brief phrases over the radio to his fellows.

So as an exercise in understatement, Dunkirk is indeed a tour de force, a different sort of war movie which adapts its structure to celebrate defeat, or better, victory in defeat. But to think that it somehow avoids the tropes of war films would be a mistake, and to do so makes certain moments stand out more. Branagh stays behind, ostensibly to aid the French who will be evacuated in the next wave, when he knows full well there will be no next wave. It was tempting to think of him making an appeasement to the age-old antagonisms which have sprung up over Brexit, but I think it was more to give us a sense of the Capt. Scotts, the captain going down with his ship. Think Robert Taylor in Bataan, without the machine gun, the grave, or the Japs crawling toward him.

I spent a long time trying to figure the fuel capacity and range of those Spitfires, and at five miles per gallon, Tom Hardy would indeed have had plenty of time to do most of what he does. However the laws of physics make a couple of scenes dubious: the plane floating on the waves, when it's engine would tip it forward and then down very quickly indeed, and Hardy's amazing manoeuvres while in a powerless glide, where English grit proves too much for gravity. Given his ability to move the plane I wondered why he bothered to land away from the evacuation point, and into the middle of the oncoming (somewhat late and without any urgency) handful of Germans. Perhaps he was being a decoy. But if you think of this section of the film within its own chronological order, you see a story-line that is virtually unchanged from Air Force, apart from the Germans strafing a downed pilot, and that makes one wonder if the time-shifting is a sort of sleight of hand aimed at distracting the audience from the familiar tropes the film actually embraces, not denies.

But most instructive was the reaction of the British soldiers to the discovery one of them is actually French, and thus unworthy of being saved. No matter that the French are actually holding back the Germans while all this is happening (though for reasons we still don't understand fully, the Germans mostly held themselves back, including, crucially, in the air). This was Brexit in a nutshell: we're getting out of here and we are not taking any immigrants with us.

When everyone gets back to Britain they discover the full scale of the success of the evacuation (though somehow Kenneth Branagh knows the exact total while he is still on his little beach) and it puts that small story Nolan has shown us into some sort of context.

Writing before the Oscars, I can't see Dunkirk winning, Chariots Of Fire-like, in what would now be an upset. It is apparently the largest-grossing WWII movie, ever, but two-thirds of its takings were outside the US. However I happened to see it in America, and the audience, while not as partisan as a British one, was definitely impressed with the overall dignity and grit of the film's approach. If it were to win it might be because it speaks to certain virtues in a time of chaos, and America shares its own sort of chaos with Britain right now. But I guess that Oscar voters will be split between those who see Dunkirk as an innovation in war films and those who wonder if such a micro-focus really does convey a macro picture after all. And there are other films which get more specifically into our collective malaise, or get away from it.

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