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DUNKIRK MORE SPOCK - review of Nolan's new major film

SPOILER ALERT

SOLDIERS NOT BATHING

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan (not the 1958 film with John Mills and Richard Attenborough) may well be the summer movie event of 2017, just as Saving Private Ryan was the autumn event of roughly 20 years ago (the same year Nolan's Following debuted). However, whereas the earlier WW2 classic featured a bravura beach invasion of Europe scene unrivalled in contemporary film, and was directed by the leading blockbuster film-maker of our time, Spielberg, this new movie features death on a beach where the soldiery are seeking to escape the beachhead and the seabed, equally, and exit Europe (at least mainland). It was the first Brexit, as it were, and as endless pundits are muttering, and that forsaken politics does shade some of the gung-ho little England flag-waving at the end.

More pointedly, the new film is an attempt to outdo Spielberg, but also Kubrick, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, potential rivals to Nolan, whose immaculate, precise, and intelligent space, comic book, and fantasy thrillers, share many elements with these other masters of the film arts. Christopher Nolan, famously, divides most fans and critics, though more are on than against his side. I remain agnostic. I think Memento is a great film, and Inception nearly is; and the three Batman films extraordinarily competent, with genuinely eccentric performances; The Prestige is deeply haunting. Interstellar is a failure of considerable interest with moments of greatness. Dunkirk has been positioned as his most serious, large-canvas work to date, a truly prestige vehicle, that should win him many Oscars. It is a bridge too far.

I dislike critics calling ambitious works failures. Hamlet and The Bridge by Crane are often called failures, but they have too much genius not to be successes as well. Dunkirk is like this sort of failure. It is riddled with the style and vision of the achieved auteur - Nolan is that sort of film-maker. However, since the film is mounted and presented as a major human experience, it cannot but fall a bit on the portentousness of its presentation, form, plot and ideas.

The key decision is to remove the "enemy" from view. They are not called Germans in the opening title card, and are faceless throughout. We only see the effects of their torpedoes, bombs, and bullets. We only see their planes. And, at the very end, a few faceless shadows. We are presented instead with a God's eye view of various aspects of the escape - a small civilian vessel captained by Mark Rylance, the best thing in the film; the soldiers on the beach waiting to escape, officer and lower rank; and Spitfire pilots chasing German planes seeking to inflict damage on the ships coming to rescue the over 300,000 stranded Brits. This is a terrible error, because the menace demanding escape is rendered far too philsopsophical and abstract - there is an idea of doom, but far too little sense of the guiding hand of real generals and officers, and fighting men, on the other side, driving the British into the sea.

At times, this faceless nemesis is awesome and strange, as when the choreographed masses of men huddled and bereft on the piers bow and fly as bombs loom, like cruel gods playing with flies. The attempt to establish that war is indifferent, cruel and random is successful, but given the humanity of the British characters, it is a bit rich to pretend the enemy is of another order.

More problematic is the impressively alienating score, by always-talented Hans Zimmer. The film is almost entirely wordless, filmed a bit like a Malickian reverie. It sounds like ragged claws scuttling across silent synthesisers. It is disturbing when not very loud. It makes the beach desolate and eerie, and sad. But it would have been, anyway. It plainly shouts serious trouble, and is a bit like an actor reading poetry, all inflection where nuance would be advised.

I say the film is more Spock than Kirk because wherever emotion is attempted, it is shoe-horned into a time scheme and three-part structure that, though at times a bit surprising and informative, is mostly baffling and unwanted. Logic takes precedence over feeling. This is a math-rock attempt at a Beatles album. We get the 'Penny Lane' stuff at the very end, when a few women are allowed to speak (almost all the nurses are there to hand out tea and bread and jam, then die, with almost nothing to say); and the many Mum and Dad boats come over the horizon, in a genuinely moving moment, only because it was an historically wonderful moment. Nolan misses the beat here, and it falters.

The very ending of the film is a reverse of a Kubrick moment.  Kubrick's most famous moments are about technology advancing to fail, or failing to advance properly - as in the bone to spacecraft, and then the dying insane computer. Nolan's film ends with a Spitfire's final astonishing resilience, coming into land at sunset, a requiem for impressive modern aircraft design and plucky cockpit derring-do, as if humanity can be summed up in that second when wheel touches sand. It felt more like an Apple ad frighteningly exaggerated. Nolan may well think this is an iconic image, and it might work as one for an Olympic opening ceremony or other second-tier propaganda, but it does not convince as deeply ethical or thought-out screen art.

The other faults with the film are astonishing. The great Sir Kenneth Branagh's thankless role may well be lampooned in future SNL skits - the stalwart naval commander who never does anything but stand stiffly and look astonished as bad things happen. He does nothing else, really, not even shout many orders or plan anything, except intone info-dumps, bland and over-written in a mostly worldess picture. At the end he stays to "help the French" - an unintentionally comical claim since he has helped no one yet. Worse is the downbeat and needless subplot of a 17-year-old boy with a wonderful sweater, who leaps onto Rylance's boat, and ends up blind then bled out, not from enemy fire but a shell-shocked seaman, rescued and then immediately, like some sort of Ancient Mariner, cursing his new ship. This is a cruel waste of a likeable character.

More comically-bad is the idea of having one character (The Mole) function like a slapstick silent movie comedian, literally shuttling from one frying pan to sinking frying pan to fiery frying pan, after another. No one was ever less or more lucky to be a key part of the plot. The whole film is like a documentary made by a very smart child with a slide-ruler, who thinks that people mostly die in battle by burning, or drowning, or being shot or blown up, by The Enemy, with no sense of history or context, but who perfectly models, on some remote and vast stage, the precise and accurate models of all the boats, and guns, and planes, as they once were, as if about to enter the realm of Time.

Beautiful, with brilliant editing and cinematography, and a few set pieces of genuine terror and wit (the stretcher bearer scene is a 10-minute-sequence of genius), Dunkirk is, after all, still Very Good: a four out of five star film that wants to be a ten star film. It will have to settle for less, and will likely end up being a superb Boxing Day staple of UK telly, at 4pm, where the ludicuous edge of importance will be worn off like a decal, letting the ageing model assume a passable likeness to the real thing, memorable after all.
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