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On the beaches

Photo by Beata May on Wikimedia CommonsEvery so often comes a film that finds itself the subject of much earnest discussion – not with regard to the subject matter nor to any particular individual performance, nor even because of the use of some dazzling new studio trickery – but rather because it represents a significant advance in the film-maker’s art.

Such a beast is Christopher Nolan’s film of the miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940.

‘Dunkirk’ has caused much comment and in the case of the critics this has been overwhelmingly favourable – the great majority being of the view that this is a noteworthy piece of film-making that lends new perspective to an historical event.

In this case I am with the critics. I think that ‘Dunkirk’ is a brave piece of film-making.

Consider:

Nolan determined to make an epic film about this major historical event which featured some 400,000 troops on the allied side alone, along with in excess of 800 vessels, without resorting to the use of CGI. The film also lacks entirely the uber-realistic blood and gore that has become a staple of modern war films; it features very little dialogue and no backstories for any of the characters; it has no scenes showing those in command on either side directing the engagement and no enemy combatants are seen at all until the very final scene.

Bear in mind also that this is a Hollywood film about a battle that not only featured no Americans (Nolan also insisted that the cast be entirely British), but which was actually an epic defeat!

As though all of this were not enough, Nolan’s script is also divided into three elements – the action on land, the evacuation on water and the aerial battle over the beaches. These elements – each of which flows across the entire film – take place in three different time-frames. The land action encompasses a week – the naval component covers one day in the evacuation – and the aerial action takes a mere hour. The three strands overlap at the climax of the piece, which of course means that the viewer sees the same action from multiple points of view.

The effect of the decisions taken by the director is that the film captures in a visceral manner just a little of what the experience of being on the beaches at Dunkirk might have been like. No individual’s story is more important than any other. No-one on the beaches knows what is going on, and nor can they imagine the wider picture. All that they know is that if they are to survive this calamity – for which no training can possibly have prepared them – they must fight against all the odds. The film has been described as ‘immersive’ – and that perhaps best sums it up.

The commentarists on the InterWebNet – those driven to add their voice and opinion to any and every matter –  have been less generous. Complaints include a lack of historical accuracy; an inadequacy of scale; the omission of important characters, events or even themes (including gripes concerning the under-representation of nationalities, races and genders!); the incomprehensibility of the narrative to those not familiar with the history and the supposed incompetence of writing which does not indulge in the usual tropes – well defined characters with revealing backstories and emotionally engaging story and character arcs.

We are all of us entitled to our views – of course – as we are to express the same. It does seem to me a little perverse – however – to apparently willfully miss the point in quite such a manner. To sit through Nolan’s impressionistic work and then to cavil that it is not the film that one wishes the director had made is perhaps – and only a little facetiously – somewhat akin to wishing that Van Gogh had possessed a camera with which he could have taken a few snaps of some sunflowers!

Exaggeration – naturally – entirely for effect!

Anyway – five stars in my book…

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