Typical me, not liking a film that the critics and film fans are raving about, right? Well actually I did like it. But I had wanted to love it. It combined two of my favourite things after all – WWII drama and Chris Nolan.
Someone asked me today, “did you enjoy it?”. I answered’ “Yes asterisk.” No I wasn’t talking to a Gaul, I wanted to provide some caveats, and I did (up to a point, because I didn’t want to spoil it for him). I’m sure he was glad he asked. So here are my caveats to an otherwise good film about an important historic moment of time during WWII:
My biggest gripe (let’s be real here, dressing them up as ‘caveats’ is just a facade) is that there were not enough boats in the film – it seems like they rescued over 300,000 people in ten boats. In fact about 700 private boats were involved in the flotilla (admittedly this is according to Wikipedia but you get the idea that it was a lot). You get no sense of the scale of the achievement from the film. Sure this might have been showing us day one of the operation in which only around 7,500 soldiers were evacuated, but it still made it look like there’d be 750 people per boat.
My second gripe is bundled up in the feeling that there was no proper story-telling going on. There was no character development and the film is more a depiction of events than a character-driven story. This leaves those wanting poster-boy Harry Styles to turn in a cracking debut performance left scratching their heads.
In some ways the main character is the barren landscape, the air and the sea – you get a feeling of emptiness holding a high potential for death by drowning, bombing, shooting and burning with home almost visible on the horizon. So with none of the humans really having any great depth to them, when they revealed who was being dragged along by the boat and ultimately rescued I didn’t really think yay it’s great that particular character survived. It was a truly ‘meh’ moment for me.
My third gripe, and trust me I’m amazed with myself for saying this being such a big fan of Memento, is about how the edit messes about intercutting the three timelines of the Spitfire pilots, the soldiers wanting to get off the beach and the old chap in the boat. It gets really very tedious.
I felt myself rolling my eyes every time they showed what seemed like seconds of one of the ‘stories’ and then cut back or forward in time to show another segment, and then back, and then…. and on and on… until great it comes together at the end of the film. Well done guys you’re so clever. For me this ‘trickery’ made me too conscious of the filmmaker in each scene rather than being immersed in the story.
In fact I looked around at a potential point of confusion where Cillian Murphy appears as the ‘shivering soldier’ in one scene followed by him appearing quite all right telling people to piss off away from his boat. Plenty of people were whispering (I assume) WTFs? to people. Nul point for paying attention guys. However, did we really need this kind of timeline shenanigans in this supposedly gripping tale? How can you be gripped when the focus keeps changing?
By listening to the intensely drumming music that’s how. Fourth gripe. The music was really distracting. I don’t need the score to tell me when something tense is happening thank you.
Fifth point – for all its cinematic in-camera qualities the film lacked scope. We got hardly any background to the context of the Dunkirk evacuation, tactical decisions on both sides were explained away in quick one-liners and the story seemed really small as a result. But it wasn’t, it was momentous!
It would have been nice to see some decision making by the Germans (e.g. stopping the advance of their tanks) or any aspect of their side of the story to be honest. The Germans remain pretty much unseen on the ground until the end. I’m sure this was a conscious decision by Nolan to make it all about the Allied forces – individual members of the navy, the army and the air force at different ranks – but it takes two to tango and at least two to have a war, so sidelining the Germans (apart from their aircraft) as an unseen foe made little sense to me.
So let me end on some good points. I thought the Spitfire sequences were marvellous (I would have happily sat through 2 hours of just aircraft footage), I thought Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy put in very good performances, and I enjoyed the in-the-action POVs that writer/director Christopher Nolan chose to show us. Will that do?