A war vehicle running low on fuel.
The words “Christopher Nolan” and “disappointment” are not words I would naturally associate… but for me, they apply where “Dunkirk” is concerned.
It promised so much from the trailer: a historical event of epic proportions; Kenneth Branagh; Tom Hardy; Mark Rylance; Hans Zimmer on the keys; the director of such classics as “The Dark Knight”; “Inception” and “Interstellar” : what could go wrong?
But it just doesn’t work and I’ve spent the last 24 hours trying to unpick why.
A key problem for me was the depiction of the beach itself. The film eschews CGI effects – a move that I would normally approve of – in favour of the use of “practical effects” and the involvement of “thousands of extras” (as the rather glutinously positive Wiki entry declares). Unfortunately for the movie, there were some 400,000 troops marooned in this last patch of civilisation ahead of the Nazi hoard, and all of the shots refuse to acknowledge this scale of potential human tragedy. Yes, there are individual scenes of horror, such as the soldier walking into the sea against the impassive stares of the young heroes. But nothing of scale. At times I thought I’d seen more people on the beach on a winter’s day in Bournemouth! In the absence of a co-production with China, and the provision of the volume of extras as in “The Great Wall“, CGI becomes a necessary evil to make the whole exercise believable.
My disquiet at this deepened when we got to the sharp end of the rescue by the “small boats”. In my mind (and I’m NOT quite old enough to remember this!) I imagine a sea full of them. A sight to truly merit Branagh’s awed gaze. But no. They might have been “original” vessels…. but there was only about half a dozen of them. A mental vision dashed.
The film attempts to tell the story from three perspectives: from the land; from the sea and from the air. The sea though gets the lion’s share of the film, and there is much drowning that occurs that (I am aware) was distressing for some in the audience.
Nolan also pushes his quirky “timeline” manipulation too far for an audience that largely expects a linear telling of a classic tale. It’s day; it’s night; the minesweeper’s sailing; then sunk; then sailing again; a Spitfire crashes, then crashes again from a different perspective. I know many in the audience just didn’t ‘get’ that: leaving them presumably very confused!
That being said, the film is not a write off, and has its moments of brilliance. Kenneth Branagh (“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit“, “Valkyrie”) – although having a range of Nolan’s clipped and cheesy lines to say – is impressive as the commanding officer. Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies“, “The BFG“) also shines as the captain of the “Moonstone”: one of the small boats out of Weymouth (although here there is a grievous lack of backstory for the civilian efforts). And Tom Hardy (“The Revenant“, “Legend“), although having limited opportunity to act with anything other than his eyes, is impressive as RAF pilot Farrier. His final scene of stoic heroism is memorable.
Fionn Whitehead is also impressive in his movie debut, and even Harry Styles (“This is Us“) equips himself well.
The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar“) is stunning with some memorable shots: a burning plane on a beach being a highspot for me.
And Hans Zimmer’s score is Oscar-worthy, generating enormous tension with a reverberating score, albeit sometimes let down by unsuitable cutaways (for example, to scenes of boat loading). Elsewhere in the sound department though I had major issues, with a decent percentage of the dialogue being completely inaudible in the sound mix.
I really wanted this to be a “Battle of Britain”. Or a “Bridge Too Far”. Or even a “Saving Private Ryan”. Unfortunately, for me it was none of these, and this goes down as one of my movie disappointments of the year so far.
Fad Rating: FFf.