Friday 28 July 2017

On the beach: "Dunkirk"

Even Christopher Nolan, visionary of the Comic-Con contingent, comes now to look backwards, caught in a moment in which Britain entire is apparently glancing over its own shoulders at rapidly receding former glories. (A question, plucked out of the musty air: could the genteel, cosily acceptable dreams of Empire framed in Downton Abbey have been as responsible for the result of last year's EU referendum as the rabid rhetoric on the back of the average UKIP flier?) Dunkirk, as you'll doubtless already be aware, is the story of a retreat from Europe, albeit in altogether more fraught and challenging circumstances than are faced in 2017: in a realisation of some presumably long-held Boys' Own fantasy, Nolan has been allocated the resources by Warner Bros. - the studio for which he made several cool billions overseeing the new (and, thanks to turbo-capitalism, now old) Batman franchise - to recreate that moment in late May/early June 1940 when hundreds of thousands of British troops were evacuated from the French coast, under heavy bombardment from German forces.

Nolan, ever the strategist, has broken this staggering logistical feat down in terms that might be easily be grasped by Burbank executives and the multiplexgoers of Burslem alike. We're offered three lines through the action, each one operating on a different clock: "The Mole", named for a landing jetty and unfolding over the course of a week, takes place on and around the beach, charting the haphazard progress of those squaddies pinned down by enemy fire; "The Sea", taking place over a single day, sees Mark Rylance taking to the waters as the captain of one of the privately owned "little ships" requisitioned to provide assistance during the evacuation; "The Air", describing but one hour, has Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot encountering the enemy while striving to provide some semblance of cover to those on the ground. Land, sea and air, then, and the surface efficiency of the film - just 108 minutes in total, Nolan's shortest this century - can be attributed to the fact we always know roughly where we are at any given point. (For once, the director of Memento and Inception isn't trying to lose us.)

These strands yield broadly varied sights: that of anxious, pallid young men lined up by the waters under overcast skies, either sitting ducks or fish in a barrel; that of steady Cap'n Rylance motoring across the Channel towards the shell of a downed plane, nothing else on the horizon; that of planes swooping out of that cloud cover and engaging in the twists and turns of aerial combat. Nolan is entirely committed to reproducing the grim, terse experience of this moment, wherever our ancestors might have observed it from - here is a summer blockbuster with more than a hint of the Sealed Knot about it - and the worldbuilding extends into that very careful, clever manipulation of time: these parallel events will eventually curve round and curl into one another, like the buildings in Inception's suddenly unrooted Paris. What Dunkirk sets out to do, and what it achieves, is to take one battle in isolation, and to cover it from all available angles - and here, I fear, is where the film's problems begin.

Although clearly operating in a more sombre, reverential key, the new film frequently resembles the kind of citytrashing finale Nolan initiated in his Batmovies: spectacular vistas, interrupted by loud, crashing fireballs, creating unnoticed, unmourned collateral damage, nothing lingered over long enough to have any lasting effect. Time starts morphing here, too, though in ways Nolan couldn't have envisaged: I entered Dunkirk thinking it sounded short for a summer event movie, and came out thinking it seemed grindingly long for the last act of a summer event movie. In part, this is down to Nolan's decision to limit himself to generating a particular kind of spectacle: the 12A variety that gets your $100m movie into moneyspinning multiplexes, but which precludes any real blood and guts, and rules out anything so tricky to dramatise or engage an audience with as politics or context. (This lack is perhaps the reason the film has been swooned over by critics on the left and Nigel Farage alike: it's a noisy void, a historical tumble dryer from which you can pull out any warming conclusion you like.)

I had the strongest, strangest feeling of déjà vu watching Dunkirk at my local cinema this week, and realised around halfway through that I'd been undergoing the exact same sensations I'd experienced watching James Cameron's Titanic in the same venue two decades before: being stirred and to some degree impressed by a film's technical achievements, but left emotionally cold by almost every one of its other aspects. Nolan deploys his soldiers not really as flesh-and-blood characters that invite identification, rather avatars of the audience's own shellshocked experience: he pushes untested, interchangeable types (Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden, a begrimed Harry Styles) into the front ranks of cannon fodder, then reinforces them with names and faces (Rylance, Hardy, Cillian Murphy) who catch the eye in trailers but have only muffled dialogue to deliver in their bitty, piecemeal scenes. (One exception, and a rare pleasure here: Kenneth Branagh, caught in the final phase of his transformation into A Night to Remember-era Kenneth More. As in Henry V and the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony, Branagh projects a potent, poignant idea of Britishness.) 

The real battle going on in Dunkirk is that between the quiet, dignified heroism occasionally perceptible in some of these performances - a quality that a director truly interested in human valour and frailty might have more closely honed in on - and a prodigious big-picture technique designed to induce PTSD in a Saturday-night crowd because that's now considered an index of A Significant Time At The Movies. (The delayed orgasm the film induces as the little ships bob into the soldiers' view and Hans Zimmer's droning score finally bursts forth into Elgar's "Nimrod" explains why Farage was standing so uncomfortably in front of that Dunkirk poster; the upholstery bill for that screen must have been horrendous.) That the tactic has largely succeeded can be witnessed from the fanatical stance of those format fetishists urging IMAX tickets upon us as though they were war bonds: possibly you need to submit to Dunkirk, to be overwhelmed by it, because that's all it's been built to do. Bear in mind, though, as the last of the bodies are cleared discreetly from Nolan's ever-pristine beaches, that there were people who insisted that about Fast & Furious 8, too.

Dunkirk is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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