Film review of Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Cast

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a British Army private

Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, a mariner and Peter’s father

Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter, Mr Dawson’s son

Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Harry Styles as Alex, a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Aneurin Barnard as “Gibson”, a French soldier masquerading as a British Army private

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant

Barry Keoghan as George, a young man who helps to crew Dawson’s boat.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation

Cillian Murphy as frightened soldier

Tom Hardy as Farrier, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Michael Caine appears in a spoken cameo role as Fortis Leader

Director Christopher Nolan

The year is 1940. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) has been sent to  Europe to help repel  the Germans. This fails and the BEF eventually make their way to Dunkirk, a French port  six miles from the Belgian border. Here they wait, more in hope than expectation, to be  evacuated back to Britain. But against the odds  between  27 May  and  4 June over 300 thousand, British,  colonial and French troops were evacuated, most by Royal Navy  (RN) ships but some by civilian boats, many  very small,  crewed  by  a mixture of RN personnel and civilians. (Small boats were useful  because they could get near enough to shore  for soldiers to wade out to them.  Larger boats had to either wait offshore to have soldiers ferried to them or they used a form of jetty called a mole to take people on board. )

The Germans did not press forward into Dunkirk with their army as might have been expected . Instead they attacked using  planes and submarines. Why they took this course is unclear but it was sanctioned by Hitler.  It may have been Goering persuading Hitler to allow the Luftwaffe to  gain the kudos of finishing off  the British forces.  it might have been Hitler believing  that once the British forces were out of continental Europe they would never come back. It could have been caution on the part of Hitler and his generals. Whatever the reason during the week the evacuation lasted the troops on Dunkirk beach  were  subject to bombing   and British vessels  engaged in the evacuation  were bombed and torpedoed. That is the bare bones of Dunkirk.

The brutal reality of  war has often  not been represented honestly or convincingly in films, but  the graphic opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan arguably changed that and most war films since have been much more unsparing of the audience’s squeamishness.   Indeed, modern film makers have taken to heart the American civil war general  William Sherman’s remark   “War is hell” and created Hell on the screen.   Christopher  Nolan does so here.   Consequently, the film scores very well  when it comes to the military action, giving  a graphic depiction of the multiplicity of ways of dying in action and the sheer violence and randomness  of the killing and wounding. The effect is  to  give a nihilistic quality to many of  the scenes. Whether someone lives or dies has  no particular purpose.

The aerial battles between three Spitfires providing cover to the  men on the beach and the ships taking them off   and their fights  with German fighters and bombers  are particularly compelling , perhaps because such warfare  has the shape  of single combat and the manoeuvres of planes flying fast but not at supersonic speed while  attacking with machine guns  rather than missiles  has an intimacy that the blind destruction of men on the ground absolutely lacks. The Spitfire pilot had to get close to his target and fire his guns in sustained bursts. .

All of this makes for a complicated story to tell. To address this fact Nolan has decided on an impressionistic  style rather than a straightforward chronological narrative. He does this by dividing  the film into three separate sections entitled   land, sea and air.

The  quick  flitting from one piece of action to another the film does not give great  opportunity for character development  but   Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, the  civilian  skipper of a small boat, knits together the progress of the sea  story and as a representative of the “small ships”.

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation represent  the  experience of senior officers  while Fionn Whitehead as Tommy and  Harry Styles as Alex  give a backbone  to the experience of the private soldier.

Spitfire pilots  Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins  and Tom Hardy as Farrier do the same for the air action.

Rylance  oozed  calmness under fire and  brings what he always does to the screen,  an intensely sympathetic personality  while Hardy is coolness personified, with a courage which is anything but showy.  He is a man who is brave whilst doing what he does out of a sense of duty.

The one character that I found unconvincing  was  that  of Cillian Murphy,   who plays a frightened soldier  whose nerve has gone after having been in a ship which was torpedoed.   The Dawsons  pick him up on the  way to France and the soldier in a state of panic tries without success to get Dawson to turn about and head for England.  Somehow he never managed to make his mental anguish seem anything other than histrionic.

The film  has its historical  inaccuracies and omissions. Next to nothing is made of the French army’s resistance which hindered the German advance on Dunkirk and the considerable damage that occurred in Dunkirk is absent.  But neither is the British rear-guard action to allow most of the BEF to reach Dunkirk and be rescued . The   idea of the  film is to show the British experience at Dunkirk and in  the English Channel r ather than try to give  the complete picture of the action around and about Dunkirk and indeed within  Britain itself ,  where the families  of  both the stranded BEF men and of those who  had sailed their small boat  like the fictitious Mr Dawson  might have been included in the story.

Whether  the viewer finds  the limited scope of the film  satisfying or not it,  is nonetheless a legitimate dramatic  device to concentrate on the direct experience of those on the beach and the British forces by  sea and air  which facilitated the remarkable evacuation of some 190,000 British soldiers and  120,000  French ones. If the film had been expanded to take in the French and German warfare  relating to Dunkirk or the behaviour of the relatives and friends of the servicemen trapped in Dunkirk it would have been an entirely different film .

Dunkirk  has its limitation as a coherent  drama but taken as a whole it is an invigorating and exciting production. It gives a vivid idea of the immediacy  and multiplicity of danger which war brings and the sheer helplessness of humans caught in its coils. . That is reason enough to see it.   But there is also another reason .  The World Wars left their mark long after they were over  and not just in terms of the dead and wounded.  It left its mark on the survivors.  I  was born in 1947. The war loomed very large in my childhood and  even my early adult years. One regularly  met ordinary people who had done extraordinary things: landing on the beaches on D Day; serving  on the convoys to Russia;  flying  Spitfires and Hurricanes in the  Battle of Britain or  flying sortie after sortie with Bomber Command. The result  was a toughness in people generally but particularly in those who had seen  action, which is lacking today. It is a film which will speak especially to people who remember what the war was like and its aftermath.

 

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Comments

  • Gerald Barker  On September 23, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    One reason the Germans did not press the attack was that they were focused more on defeating the French army elsewhere – it is too Anglo-centric a view which assumes Dunkirk was as important to the Germans as the British. Also, the Germans would not have appreciated the value of Dunkirk at the time.

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