“There’s no hidin’ from this, son… We have a job to do.”
I was invited to see Dunkirk with two of my three older brothers so we could have a boys’ night out at the pictures. However, much to my surprise, Dunkirk was the only so-called boys’ film that’s come out all year that my girlfriend actually wanted to see. I couldn’t help but indulge her, plus Harry Styles was in it so she had some eye candy if things got really boring. I’m okay with that; I had Cillian Murphy to look at.
It’s rather difficult to write a synopsis of a film based on actual historical events without taking it straight off the Wikipedia page, so I shall do just that in case people don’t know anything about what is arguably one of the most triumphant events in British wartime history: The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, during World War II. There you have it! Let’s get to the movie.
I think most of the things I enjoyed during Dunkirk where due in no small part to Vue Cinemas’ gorgeous surround sound. ‘Scuse my French, but FUCK was the sound good!! Divebombers positively screaming overhead, explosions that made your ears ring, gunshots clattering out that felt like they were impacting all around you. It felt more like a 4D movie than a 2D one, with the seats juddering everytime a Spitfire made a pass. God damn, this is what cinema should sound like, god damn god damn. Ahem. Let me compose myself and talk about some other enjoyable aspects, speaking of the planes. The few times I felt my eyes sting a little during Dunkirk were, besides the moment when all the small vessels arrive (which was actually butchered by Kenneth Branagh’s subsequent line, tut tut) and when the boys arrive home and see the white cliffs of Dorset (I’ve already mentioned my little house there on this blog), were whenever the spitfires flew past. They were actually gorgeous, I can’t lie. I’ve never even had a particular affinity for the engines of war, but I guess a substantial part of me enjoys first person shooter video games and sci-fi war movies, and then on top of that Fury is among my top favourite films of all time, soooo perhaps I’m just trying to hide the fact that I do love a beautiful piece of engineering, and the Spitfire is no exception. Says a lot that I purchased a Lego Republic Fighter Tank in the shopping centre we saw the film in, doesn’t it? The visuals of the film in general were rather nice, if a little washed-out, just like the soldiers, and some particularly stomach-churning aerial shots were enjoyable when your seat was wobbling along with the nose of the plane. The acting throughout the film isn’t half bad, surprising considering it’s mostly American accents that work on the big screen, and I hate to say it but you know it’s never a good sign when I draw my “The Good” section to a close with a comment on something which is expected to be present in any film. To attempt to defend Dunkirk before I get into my criticisms, I will say that I acknowledge the fact maybe the character’s aren’t memorable because they’re not supposed to be, as war is anonymous, and hardly any are individual heroes… but let’s be frank: Nolan probably wasn’t thinking that hard about the symbolism.
To be Improved:
When I had to turn to my girlfriend and explain that yes, we were now on a third separate timeline in terms of the plot, I think we both realised that something was amiss. Cillian Murphy is on the small vessel Moonstone after being rescued, heading back towards Dunkirk; Cillian Murphy is also refusing access to a boat to another of our main characters, who is stuck on the beach (confusing enough already, the only indication that these are different time frames being the time of day); and Tom Hardy flies towards a German bomber about to take out a minesweeper. To add insult to injury, Hardy’s character takes about twenty minutes of screentime to get to the bomber, despite going full throttle and blazing through his Spitfire’s fuel. This is because it keeps jumping back and forth, and then to my intense frustration, Hardy doesn’t even catch up to the bomber before it completely obliterates the minesweeper, killing most on board in one barrage. There are moments like this that aren’t entirely explained, like when some sort of blind man (possibly, again, not explained) touches our hero on the face before giving him a blanket. Also, when Harry Styles’ character (who is the grumpy nadir of the film) does what he does best by being moody on the train ride home through England, there’s this sort of lacklustre reveal, as the other protagonist (though I use that word lightly) reads Churchill’s triumphant Commons’ address in the paper, that “Oh, I guess Harry’s character thought everyone would be angry at them for retreating, but we already… Sort of… Knew that Dunkirk was a triumph rather than a failure so… What?” On top of that, the sheer frustration that Hardy’s character, when he finally does run out of fuel, simply glides to a halt on the beach and, despite that fact that he flies over hundreds of men on the beach being evacuated, is captured by Germans in the film’s closing shots. I guess he didn’t want the Spitfire to fall into enemy hands? It’s all just so vague and confusing, and any emotional impact is lost because we don’t actually spend enough time with any of the characters to really care about them. Plus, and god, now I’m just ranting, the trailer spoils absolutely any moment of tension. My girlfriend got all tense when Styles’ character goes into the belly of a boat, and I just turned and said “Torpedo, I reckon,” and lo and behold, someone shouted “TORPEDO!” and the whole thing was blown to smithereens. Again, when some Englishmen hide in the bottom of a fishing boat which is being used as target practice by some unsuspecting Germans, one is asked to plug the holes or the boat will sink. I covered my ears, and sure enough, only my girlfriend jumped at the next bullet which came through the hull. How did I know all these things, I hear you ask? The trailer, man. The damn trailer. When the next Star Wars one comes out, I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t think I want to watch it, because studios are just spoiling more and more and more with each new film. The artificial tension throughout the film was a cheap way of making the audience on edge, and I started to notice about halfway through that at most quiet moments, some sort of gunshot was about to go off. Nearly one hundred percent of the time, I was right. It still gave me a bloody fright every single time, which was a nice adrenalin kick, but I’d go to a horror movie if I wanted that. And finally, speaking of artificiality, the death scenes that came every quarter of an hour were even less emotional than the jumpscares, and that’s saying something. It wasn’t poignant because, much like a horror movie in fact, characters were just picked off at every opportunity rather than in any sort of moving scene. Sure, as I kind of mentioned in the above section, maybe this is the point, as you can die at the drop of a hat in war, but Nolan’s death scenes were just too formulaic and at intervals far too regular to make me think that was the case.
Dunkirk rumbles moodily along for its duration and for whatever reason manages to make its nearly two-hour runtime feel like half of that, with some great shots and emotional moments, but fails to deliver on any satisfying characters, action or poignancy overall. More like a string of ‘boo’ moments, the film (like many Cillian Murphy stars in, Anthropoid included) is not one that will be remembered, despite its subject matter, mainly due to the frantic (but somehow still dragging) jumping between scenes. I shall simply agree with what my dad, who saw it a few days before me with aforementioned brothers, said when I asked him whether or not Dunkirk was good: “Mmm… It was enjoyable, yeah,” he replied, with a so-so look on his face. And, in stark contrast to the history it was based on, I’ve gotta admit that that’s all Nolan’s Dunkirk is, unfortunately.