Scene from Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk'. Photo: Warner Bros. Scene from Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk'. Photo: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s epic depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation misses the point, argues Tom Lock Griffiths

Snatching a powerful propaganda victory from the jaws of defeat, the evacuation of Dunkirk marked a turning point in Britain’s resolve to prosecute the war against Nazi Germany. The early months of the war had been marred by poor leadership, timidity and bad organisation. This lack of determination was partly fuelled by genuine concern to avoid a re-run of the slaughter of the Great War. But it was also because for many in the British establishment, Hitler and the Nazi’s weren’t all that bad. Famously the former Edward VIII met Hitler in 1937 and was a known sympathiser, while Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail openly supported Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The real enemy, as far as they were concerned, was communism. France itself was deeply divided and the strength of the left in working class communities meant that large sections of the French establishment also were willing to countenance foreign dictatorship if it were to halt the march of socialism in France. The technical wonder of the Maginot line was a sop to the sense of French security, despite it falling short of the coast by some 250 miles along the Belgian border. The delusion also held of the impregnability of the Ardennes forests, despite overwhelming intelligence that that’s precisely where the Germans planned to attack. Tellingly, when Marshal Petain was recalled to Paris amidst the disaster that would soon follow, he declared ”my country has been beaten, this is the work of 30 years of Marxism”. 

The German pincer attack, from the north into Belgium and inevitably through the Ardennes, was a massive success as German tank commanders pushed through to the English Channel in just 9 days. Believing the main attack to be in the north, the bulk of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force of some 200,000 men headed into Belgium, realising too late they would soon be completely encircled by the Germans. The collapse of the Belgian army and German air superiority soon tipped the balance and the retreat to the coast began. British troops were told to fend for themselves and left to find their own way out of danger, trekking exhausted and hungry to the beaches, with very little air support and even less from their own command.

Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film, begins with the ‘Operation Dynamo’ evacuation already underway as the Germans close in on the small coastal town and British soldiers line the beaches waiting to be lifted off. It tells the story of the suffering, endurance and heroism of those trying to make it back home to fight another day, and the people, many of them volunteers, who helped them in their civilian ‘little ships’. From the outset it’s clear that we’re in for an impressive spectacle. Dunkirk is played out on a grand scale, reminiscent of the big budget war movies of the 1960s - The Longest Day (1962), Zulu (1964), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), The Battle of Britain (1969), Waterloo (1970) - with a large cast of actors, huge set pieces and a rousing score. 

This is a film about British military tenacity and courage, about a single moment in its history that will shape the future of the nation. While Nolan is too subtle to cover up the cowardice, fear and ugliness that inevitably permeates an action like this, it is ultimately the propaganda film that you might have expected, of the event that has, perhaps more than any other in the history of Britain’s war, been so effectively media managed. Kenneth Branagh stars as the stern but kindly officer, embodying the calm-under-fire, stiff-upper-lipped Brit, orchestrating the action from the pier, a perfect wooden-slatted stage for his understated heroics.

The film does indeed look and sound incredible, and there is no shortage of rousing deeds and incredible tension. And for many critics and audiences, this will prove enough. There are nods to the growing resentment of the French as the British prioritise their own troops and, with examples of selfishness and casual racism, this goes a little way to give the film credibility as something more than just nationalist tub-thumping.

But it isn’t just in this regard that there is a serious problem with this film. Despite high-octane thrills, masterfully executed, Nolan’s heavy-handed style keeps you at a distance, alienating you from any deep connection to any particular performance. Making the perhaps laudable decision to tell a large-scale collective story rather than that of a few full fleshed-out individuals, as in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), he never stays with one particular story thread or performance too long. Though sadly this aggravates the sense of disconnection. It is possible after all to tell multiple moving stories, as is shown in early wartime classics like, In Which We Serve (1942). The principle culprit is however, the use of music. Hans Zimmer’s score, although at times quite impressive and daring, is almost entirely devoid of subtlety and, worse, is pasted over almost the entire film. This is a dangerous tactic. Music in the cinema always reminds you where you are - in the cinema – and can, when overused as it undoubtedly is here, seriously damage that most powerful effect of good filmmaking, the suspension of disbelief. This bombastic score screams at you the whole time, mostly at deafening levels, impressing upon you the overwhelming tension of every moment. Therefore performances are smothered and undermined, and the space for the audience to project his or her own self into the action minimised. Mark Rylance’s performance suffers greatly, for instance, always fighting against a barrage of histrionic music. It also has the effect of lessening the dynamism of the film. Stuka dive-bombers wail and scream out of the sky, but because they emerge from a constant wash of over-baked music, rather than the gentle lapping of the sea against the hulls of holiday yachts coming to the rescue, gives a sense of inevitability rather than surprise. This may seem pedantic, but what it highlights is a disconnect between Nolan and his audience. He is the bore, conducting a one-sided conversation in which he alone dictates the entirety of your experience in the cinema, and like all one sided conversations, however articulate the person speaking is, it’s a conversation we start to recoil from.

That Nolan and Zimmer insist not only on talking you through everything, but shouting at you, borders on the obnoxious. One of the standout performances of the film is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, who is constantly believable and gripping. That he does so while spending most of the time behind a flying mask and goggles, so only his eyes are visible, is quite remarkable. This, however, serves to make the point too that, when given the chance, the audience should be given space to project itself into the drama. What Hardy does with his eyes, and what we have to do in our minds to compensate the lack of a clear view of the rest of his face, is a winning combination, one which Nolan doesn’t seem to think we’re otherwise capable of doing. Dunkirk looks impressive, and it’s a great technical achievement, but Nolan’s style as ever, has you leaning back feeling harangued, rather than on the edge of your seat, leaning in.

Dunkirk was a turning point of the war against Nazi Germany, but it was also a disaster. That ordinary people stepped up to save the day, taking their boats right into the heart of the war, is probably it’s only redeeming feature. To say it was a mixed success then is somewhat of an understatement, Nolan’s film too, is not the unmitigated triumph that it at first appears.  

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