I finally got around to watching this. After the broken masterpiece of The Dark Knight Rises, and the travesty of a farce of an injustice that was Interstellar, Dunkirk is definitely a return to form for Christopher Nolan. Yet I can't help feeling that, despite the rave reviews of the critics, this isn't quite the magisterial opus that it was widely proclaimed to be. Don't get me wrong - you should watch it, on the biggest, loudest system you can find. It's just that for me it falls a fair way short of being a true epic. Here's why.
[I'd warn you about spoilers, but for a historically accurate film with minimal dialogue that's not exactly possible. If anything, I'm hoping that by lowering your no-doubt hyperbolic expectations, it might actually improve the viewing experience. Still, read it at your own risk]
|The beauty of the aerial shots is conveyed far better in motion than in crude still images.|
If I had to quibble, I'd say the audio of the dialogue isn't always entirely clear (a problem widely reported in Interstellar). But that might be my sound system, so I'll let that one pass. Slightly more problematic was that it wasn't always easy to tell which pilot was which. Admittedly, since they're wearing masks that's very hard to do, but it does cause some confusion.
The soundtrack also deserves high praise. The sense of rising threat is, like Gravity, unrelenting. Coupled with the cinematography, many of the sequences are absolutely flawless. Pick any random scene in the movie, and it would probably be very difficult to find fault with it. And on a cinema screen, I can see it being genuinely overwhelming.
Alas, storytelling is where this all comes somewhat unstuck. The film begins with some rather cryptic messages (on-screen text) introducing the various locations : "The Mole : One Week"; "The Sea : One Day"; "The Air : One Hour". But do what do these times refer to ? It's horribly unclear - if they're supposed to be times before the evacuation, they're never updated. Sequences of course interleave between these various settings, but in a weird and confusing and pointlessly non-linear way. Admittedly, I'm strongly biased against non-linear storytelling. It does work in a few cases (Pulp Fiction is one, Clue is perhaps another) but as a rule I think linear events are best told, well, linearly.
There's one scene in particular that I found particularly strange, though not for non-linearity. It takes place in an abandoned boat which some British troops have found. They hide in it and wait for it to refloat on the high tide (which apparently occurs every three hours... I thought it was every twelve... one of the characters says they thought it was every six !). Remaining silent, eventually a bullet shoots through the hull. And another, and another, in very slow succession. They figure the Nazis are using it for target practise. Eh ? Target practise, in the middle of an actual battle ? Doesn't really seem terribly likely... later the bullets come faster, but always in the same location, even when the water has risen. How they're being shot at below the waterline by troops on the ground is never explained. It didn't really add to the chaos or confusion of battle - because there's very little of that - it just felt odd. And I'm still wondering about those tide times.
But what confused me most of all was the timescale over which the events happen. We see things from a few principle locations in order to concentrate on specific characters - a thoroughly sensible idea - namely a small boat, a Spitfire, and a soldier on the ground. But the shots on the small boat are always in bright sunshine, whereas those of the solider (with which the boat sequence alternates) occur both in day and night. This gives the impression that the boat has taken about a week to cross the Channel, which of course is just silly. At one point I had the idea that the solider's sequences were meant to be telling the backstory of a chap who ends up being rescued by our boat-based heroes, but that turned out not to be the case. Which is a shame because that would have been far more logical than the weird jumpy-time that we actually get. About the only time where this non-linearity does sort of nearly work was when the boat rescues a Spitfire pilot after he crashes, but even then there was no particular reason to make it non-linear.
What I found worst of all was not what the film did poorly as what it did not do at all. Nolan has a wonderful obsession with physical effects which I wholeheartedly encourage and applaud. But here I think it's been detrimental. The epic scale of the evacuation is, to my sincere surprise, almost entirely lacking. We do get a few shots showing the larger scale, but for the most part we're highly focused on individuals - so much so that it beggars belief that our characters are just a few of the 400,000 involved. This is especially true of the crew of the small boat, who for about half the film (during most of their journey across the Channel) are entirely on their own. Which I would naively have thought rather unlikely.
But it's also true of the rest of the film. There appear to be exactly two Spitfires involved in the operation, one destroyer, one minesweeper and one hospital ship. All of the ships sink except for the little boats. Admittedly there are quite a few more little boats (though nowhere near the hundreds in reality), but the other tens of destroyers that were actually involved are nowhere to be seen, and even the flotilla of little ships is seen so briefly you could almost blink and then miss it. The immense scale of the rescue effort is missing. It's pretty noticeable that Nolan managed to get hold of a few ships and a couple of planes and decided to use them and nothing else. How many times we see the same minesweeper getting sunk I'm not sure, but it bordered on getting irritating.
The scale of the disaster is equally lacking. Oh, we do get some nice moments, but nowhere near enough. It's a good idea to focus on individual characters to tell a story, but this is done to the almost complete exclusion of everyone else : how many luckless people are dying while our more fortunate protagonists are escaping ? It's a very old-fashioned approach to film making which harkens back to the days when it just wasn't possible to show features of scale, and I don't think it works very well. Indeed, it robs certain scenes of their deserved importance, such as when Kenneth Branagh spots the approaching rescue boats. It should be a fantastic moment, but because we have no idea of the scale of the disaster that's supposed to be unfolding (or at least threatening to unfold), it really isn't. It feels like, "oh well, we lost one ship, it had one day left to retirement, never mind." Yes yes, very sad, but we expect that in a war movie. While I'm not at all keen on bleakness or misery porn, this film simply lacks grit. The threat to the rescue operation as a whole is never made clear, and that's a pretty darn big thing to be missing.
As are the Nazis, or "the enemy" as they're called in the film. I'm not entirely sure, but I'm not sure we see any Nazi footsoldiers at all. I believe we see one or two planes, used multiple times, which never seem to feel particularly threatening (the Germans take out one British plane and lose three or four of their own), and that's about it. Yes, they're a threat to individuals. But there's never much of a threat to the overall rescue effort : we see the British troops ducking at opportune moments, but we very rarely see the aircraft threatening them and even less the casualties they're supposed to be causing. And that's weird. Nolan relies too much on the soundtrack, which, though perfect for the movie, isn't enough to stop me wondering, "well where is everyone ?". Especially when Branagh says, "this is it !" and nothing happens, or when we see some distant night explosions but no details of what's going on. Again, it's like those old movies where battles always used to happen in a misty forest because the studio couldn't afford a cast of more than a dozen or so extras.
In short, the movie fails to properly show the enemy assaulting the stranded troops, the effects of the enemy assault, and the massive scale of the rescue effort involved. It largely gets away with this because the individual scenes it does it does very, very well indeed. But the whole film keeps promising something so much more dramatic, and it never delivers. Ultimately, it's unsatisfying.
|It should look a bit more like this, but it doesn't.|
I like this film a lot, and I'll be watching it again. I may simply be over-reacting to the somewhat minor problems because it's simply been over-hyped. It was good. It was very good. But it wasn't great.