Now there is a 2017 movie, also called “Dunkirk”, produced, written and directed by experienced British=American filmmaker Christopher Nolan. I saw it on the big screen the other day. Very spectacular, it is a real cinema experience, and I recommend it highly. A very good movie.
But not a great movie.
Of course, as the older generation will know, Christopher Nolan’s film is based on true events. In May-June 1940, British and French forces had been defeated by the German army in France. The Allies were penned up in the French port of Dunkirk, surrounded by the Germans. There were only two alternatives: surrender or evacuation by sea to England. The British high command chose to attempt the latter. Nolan’s film deals with what happened.
The movie is actually three stories in one, with the action shifting around continually to cover the three strands of the movie. There is the story of a small group of British soldiers who are only concerned with survival by making sure they are on an evacuation boat, any boat will do. Then there is the parallel story of Dawson, an English civilian yacht owner, who, along with several hundred other civilian boats from England, sail with the Royal Navy to Dunkirk to lift the troops off the beaches. Finally, the story takes in the exploits of several British fighter pilots, part of the RAF effort to shield the men on the beaches – only partially successfully – from constant German air attack.
Nolan captures the chaos and horror of war with stunning effect. He is not on about traditional Hollywood heroics. He shows men at war as they usually are, a mixture of heroic, cowardly, or just hoping to survive as best they can. In this movie, probably the only morally admirable character is Dawson, the civilian yacht owner, admirably played by Mark Rylance. And maybe the RAF pilot who runs out of fuel because he prefers to tackle a German bomber rather than fly home.
Most of the roles are played by relative unknowns. The only three faces I recognised were Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh as a Royal Navy officer supervising the evacuation, and Cillian Murphy as one of the British Army soldiers. All the actors, known and unknown, give excellent performances – except in one vital respect which I will come to shortly.
Visually, the movie is superb. Nolan has used large-size film, not digital. If the Internet is to be believed, he largely avoided CGI. He used real aircraft, or models, for the aerial combat sequences, including three genuine Spitfires. He borrowed one or two real destroyers from the French Navy to stand in as Royal Navy warships. He filmed on the beaches of the real Dunkirk. The result of this passion for realism is quite remarkable, particularly in the aerial scenes and the ones at sea. The air and marine aspects of this film are quite superb, and are without doubt the strong points of the movie.
In one respect, Nolan’s desire for realism is misleading. He limited himself to filming with only a very few period aircraft, without supplementing their numbers by CGI. Hardly surprising. All these years later, genuine ones must be as scarce as hen’s teeth. Still, it gives the impression in the movie that the British and German air forces operated over Dunkirk only in ones and twos. In reality, the RAF and the Luftwaffe flew quite large numbers of planes over Dunkirk, often in squadron strength or more.
The story of the small group of British Army lads is less successful, in my view. The second half of the film spends far too long chronicling the disasters as our lads are endlessly sunk and rescued from a bewildering series of ill-fated ships. Of course, this happened in spades at the real Dunkirk, and it is truly horrifying and sobering to watch as drowning men, covered in oil, struggle to live. However, when you have a movie that is only one and three quarters hours long and has three stories to cover, director and editors need to budget their time much better. Also, the story of our not-so-brave Army lads gets quite confused in the movie’s second half: why, for example, didn’t they leave the beached and damaged boat when the Germans opened fire on it? With water pouring into it, and bullets flying all around, why on earth did they stay put?
Perhaps the film’s greatest problem is the poor quality of the characters’ spoken dialogue. It’s already sparse enough as it is; now you can’t even hear it. I think I only understood about 50% of what was said; my companion said she only got about 25% of it! Sometimes this inaudibility was caused by background explosions and gunfire; sometimes by Hans Zimmer’s magnificent music score, but mainly by that constant defect of modern actors: they mumble their lines. Do they all go to a special Mumble School where they learn how to do it? Even a classic actor like Kenneth Brannagh is not immune from this criticism. I long for the days when movie actors took pride in having their lines heard and understood clearly. This is a major failing of Nolan’s otherwise very good film.
Still, when all is said and done, despite some flaws, Christopher Nolan’s take on the events at Dunkirk is a fine piece of moviemaking which deserves to be seen by a wide audience. One suggestion: for the younger generation who may not be familiar with the Dunkirk story, a small caption at the film’s end explaining how successful the real-life evacuation was – about 330,000 personnel evacuated to England – would be a good idea.
I give it four stars out of five.