I like to think that I'm fairly easy to please when it comes to historical films.
I know all about the underlying accuracy problems within Braveheart (1995) for example, or even Mel's other gory romp The Patriot (2000), yet I can appreciate these experiences for what they are - bloody, satisfying indulgence on the big screen. Perhaps they take themselves too seriously, but no film is perfect.
When we came to Saving Private Ryan (1998), you got the best of both worlds - a gritty, realistic portrayal of warfare at the forefront of the allied invasion of Normandy, complete with incredible character development and depth and a standout performance by Tom Hanks, as ever. In the same vein, the relatively recent and rather underrated Fury (2014) portrayed a largely forgotten aspect of the Second World War - that desperate time where the allies were forced to claw back every piece of ground from a shrinking Nazi Empire, with increasing casualties. Just as I was forced to remember Hanks' last stand in that shattered village of Rommel, so too will that tank scene at the end of Fury be etched into my mind.
Imagine then, the potential for lingering impressions and searing memories when a topic like Dunkirk came up for the blockbuster treatment, while in the very capable hands of director Christopher Nolan. I should begin this review - the first of its kind in WDF's history of mostly ignoring historical films - by saying that under no circumstances is Dunkirk a bad film. Historically at least, Nolan's exploration of the disparate emotions and struggles faced by the film's characters is watertight. You can feel the hopelessness, the powerlessness and the desperation inherent within the different situations that the characters face.
Incredibly suspenseful music had me chewing through my fingernails as the score dipped and repeatedly rose with each scene. In that sense, I was captivated by what I was seeing and hearing - the combination was unmistakably effective. At the same time, even though I knew that I was impressed by what I was seeing and hearing, with the visceral combination of great cinematography and perspective, I couldn't help but feel ever so slightly let down by the promises made by the film's grand scope and scale.
Arguably, this isn't necessarily Dunkirk's fault - every film suffers from hype and a failure to live up to expectations, to a certain degree. But I feel this is more than that. The problem with Dunkirk is not so much that the scenes lacked that oomph, or that the much lauded dogfights high above the Channel confused me more than they excited - the real problem had to do with the characters we were greeted with on screen. This, essentially, is where the bulk of my criticism will focus.
From the moment Dunkirk begins, we are faced with several soldiers strolling through an abandoned French village as they are showered with Nazi leaflets warning them to surrender as the end is nigh. The scene is quiet, perhaps too quiet, and suddenly shots are fired from behind. One by one each soldier drops down as he is hit by an enemy out of view. Hopping a gate and then a wall, one man remains. This is our first introduction to Tommy, one of three leading men, or at least one of three men whose faces we'll be seeing a great deal of for the next hour or so. He doesn't speak for what feels like an age, in an effective transition which brings you through the chaos and despair of the British position on the beach at Dunkirk, where the British Expeditionary Force has positioned itself obediently into several neat lines in anticipation of the evacuation.
After meeting another soldier while attempting to take a dump, Tommy is now paired with Gibson for much of the film, but good luck telling them apart! As soon as the sea spray enters the equation, wet hair and clothes massively complicate matters. In any case, the tension in that moment where Tommy and Gibson rush a stretcher across the beach had me on the edge of my seat. After finally making it to the awaiting hospital ship, the pair discover that they are in fact not allowed to remain on board. Gibson hides under the pier and invites Tommy to join him, By this point, neither man has said a single word.
Incidentally, their work was all for naught as the hospital ship sinks amidst a series of devastating air attacks from the Luftwaffe, who possess air superiority. Tommy and Gibson then manage to join the survivors of this ship, and duck under the water to fit in with their wetter comrades - a clever move that! After helping one man in particular, it becomes apparent that the pair are now joined by another soldier, Alex. From this point onwards, it's a blur of scrambling aboard another ship, only for it to sink, only for our boys to be forced into the water yet again, and to return to the shore. Once on the shore they find a group of Scottish soldiers, and pile onto what appears to be an abandoned vessel on the beach.
After much suspense, in which their boat is used for target practice and a wandering Dutch seaman is captured by the group, chaos ensues as all abandon the boat with the incoming tide. Before this happens, it is revealed that Gibson is in fact a French soldier, which explained why he was literally mute up to this point, but just as he begins to become interesting, he drowns amidst a tangle of chains in the scramble to escape the sinking vessel. I had to double check who it was that actually drowned at this scene, much like I had to check what the film names of the three soldiers were. It gets doubly confusing from this point because once free from that small abandoned boat, Tommy and Alex manage to swim towards another doomed vessel, which coats their already similar complections in a load of oil. The two are almost completely alike each other in this scene, and I only realised that Gibson hadn't made it when I noticed that nobody was speaking French.
Both Tommy and Alex would later be rescued, and though both seem utterly depressed by the experience, they manage to board a train once across the Channel. 'We only survived', remarked one of them - it could literally be Tommy or Alex that said it. 'That's enough', replied a blind man at the supply depot handing out blankets. The touching nature of the scene is thankfully not sacrificed by the complete lack of emotion or connection shown by either man within it. Perhaps this is an attempt to replicate shock, yet the train journey towards what we assume to be London continues, and while at a station Alex requests a newspaper from a boy standing outside. It is then that he and Tommy learn of the extent of the withdrawal and its success. The scene effectively ends with Tommy poignantly reading Churchill's famous 'We Will Fight on the Beaches' speech, made in the House of Commons.
As an audience, we need that human connection to soldier on the ground, which Tom Hardy in his spitfire in the air (complete with a seemingly endless fuel tank) cannot quite provide. Similarly the interactions between the commanders of the Navy and Army on the beach make for fascinating if underdeveloped exchanges. These help fill us in on the unfolding strategic situation of the British Expeditionary Force, and precisely how dire it becomes with each passing day. It is through the eyes of these men, standing on the revamped remains of Dunkirk's East Mole harbour, that we see the most touching and triumphant part of the drama unfold, as the hundreds of individual pleasure boats from civilians of varying ages and classes all arrive on the scene.
The tears visible in Kenneth Branagh's eyes as he watches the rudimentary flotilla approach does bring one closer to the scene, and the score perfected of course by Hans Zimmer seems to put the exclamation point on top. Yet, these feelings of exhilaration do not last long. It's then that you realise the fact - that in spite of all that the characters have been through up to this point (this scene occurs roughly at the point when the other pair get covered in oil), this is the first time anyone has shown any emotion at all. After letting the scene sink in for a very brief moment, it's all too easy to be left wanting. The problem is not with the story, with the score or the actual sight of the boats approaching, the problem is with the characters on screen.
That Kenneth Branagh's resolute Naval Commander seeks to speak to the triumph of the scene seems appropriate at first, but when you consider the fact that the other aforementioned soldiers have been struggling through land and sea for the last hour, I felt it would have been far more effective to give them that moment of satisfaction. Granted, the triumph of the civilian flotilla is felt as it sails past the larger minesweepers and destroyers (one of which later sinks!), accompanied by shouts and hoops of delight from the Tommies on board. Yet our men in the water who we've been following up to this point remain mostly emotionless, and don't get the chance to comment on the sight that would later come to symbolise everything resiliant and defiant about the British war effort.
If I had to put it more succinctly, I would say that my problems with the similar soldiers of Dunkirk are threefold. First, by way of their similar appearances and lack of distinguishing characteristics, the characters playing Tommy, Gibson and Alex all come across the same. They are not developed individuals, but pained and stressed soldiers doing their best to survive. Even then, their faces and actions do not convey much pain or stress - at no point do any of the men seem to portray any kind of fear for their lives. By their faces alone, the Dunkirk experience would be judged as a hard slog which they've been forced to endure, rather than a pivotal life or death struggle.
Second, the lack of interaction between these characters and the audience, and the complete absence of any kind of personalities for any of them, leaves the key scenes embarrassingly flat. Why should we care for the unfortunate Gibson for example, when we know absolutely nothing about him, save that he lied to escape the beach? It says a lot about the film that actually, Gibson's apparent cowardice is the most collectively interesting thing about the three characters. I don't want to make a judgement on any of the three actors - I cannot judge for certain whether it was Nolan's decision to keep us distant from them, or whether better actors would have brought us closer to them organically. Either way, the lack of engagement with the three focused soldiers is palpable, and leaves each scene involving them feeling wanting.
That triumphant scene with the civilian flotilla is meant to stand as the ultimate victory in defeat, but I felt it lasted too long, and the music was far too triumphant considering what had been seen and done up to this point. Saying that, I really wanted to get on board, so to speak, with the feeling of hope and victory that accompanied the flotilla, but instead the score felt like it was exaggerating what my eyes were actually seeing. It was jarring to see these boats arrive, to see tears in Kenneth Branagh's eyes and to think to myself 'oh, I guess Alex and Tommy and the other soldiers are going to be rescued now...?' There was no sense of urgency, no great feeling of relief to see them brought safely home; instead I was just left feeling 'is that it?'
That brings me to my third problem with the soldiers - the failure to really spend any time explaining who the individual soldiers were made them seem like empty, wet faces constantly scrambling to reach another place of safety, rather than members of our leading cast. Put it this way -were any of the men playing Tommy, Gibson or Alex to suddenly die halfway through their ordeal and be replaced by another random soldier, the film would not have significantly suffered, and my complaints in that department would have been the same. This doesn't mean that we had to have the cliched scene where one of the soldier's takes out a photo of his sweetheart to show the lads; all it means is that you find a way to make me care about the men I'm watching on screen - that's character development 101. Development leads to investment, and without any development going on, I couldn't feel invested in the three soldiers even if I had wanted to - and I really did want to.
When we talk about interesting or developed characters, it becomes necessary to address the family going forward in their boat - they would form part of that flotilla that arrived to rescue the soldiers waiting on the beach. This story arc is by far the most developed and tragic, and a great job is done by the stiff and obedient skipper of the boat Mr Dawson, played by actor Mark Rylance in conveying his sense of duty amidst the clearly pained struggle occurring within. Similarly, Cillian Murphy's disarming portrayal of the shellshocked 'shivering soldier' rescued from the sea by Rylance and his son remind the audience that not all British soldiers were damaged by the traditional weapons of war. The drama which unfolds on that boat is perhaps the sole story arc actually concerned with drama to any great extent.
A stowaway in the form of George is injured and later dies after an altercation with Murphy's damaged soldier, who cannot bring himself to accept the idea of going back to Dunkirk to save his fellow man. This incident stands out in Dunkirk because of how unlike the rest of the film the scene is. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the boat scenes often feel like they belong in another film - after not being made to care about the shallower soldiers, it feels somewhat unnatural to then be shoved into the middle of this crisis on board the civilian boat, where we are made to worry about the wizened Rylance and his son, and where we fear what Murphy's damaged soldier will do next.
We are repeatedly brought up the skies, where Tom Hardy's relentless pilot seeks to play a game of cat and mouse with his ever shrinking group of companions. Eventually alone, Hardy plays a pivotal role in sending those eerily haunting German diver bombers into the sea. It has to be said again that the cinematography is incredible from Hardy's theatre. Yet, though the scenes bring you up and down and across the horizon in search of more Luftwaffe pilots to attack, I wasn't as massively impressed with these scenes as I was told I would be. Much like the rest of Dunkirk, the dogfights were good, but not era changing and 'best war movie of all time' material. Perhaps, again, that has something to do with Hardy's mostly covered face throughout, denying us any opportunities to engage with his character either. You'll be noticing a pattern here.
Dunkirk, at its core, seems to suffer from an overloaded to-do list. There is so much going on at different time periods that tying the events together can seem incredibly difficult on the spot. I should also mention that the thick accents of the soldiery in particular can make hearing and understanding the different actors difficult - and I'm Irish for crying out loud. Because Nolan seemed to have so much on his mind, we never see any fully developed thoughts take place on screen. I really would have liked to care more about the characters - this is a fundamental necessity in a film, and without it, the soldiers we follow for the majority of Dunkirk remain as shallow as the tricky beaches that the Royal Navy sought to traverse.
Compare such scenes to Saving Private Ryan or even Fury, and the contrast is remarkable. Where Stephen Spielberg and David Ayer (director of Fury) let their characters shine, and populate their stories with scenes of threat, tension and viscerally disturbing struggles, Dunkirk seems to inflate the latter at the expense of the former. Rather than fleshed out figures on screen, we have incredible effects, a quality score and a breathtakingly recreated setting, and the characters remain very low on Nolan's to-do list. If this was deliberate or accidental, it can probably be put down to Nolan's cinematic style, yet I couldn't help but leave Dunkirk after the 2 hours and feel like something was definitely missing from the experience.
As a history enthusiast, it is in a sense refreshing that my complaints are not of the historical accuracy variety, though I will say that this thoroughly British-centric view misses the key role the French played in defending the Dunkirk pocket. In addition, a bit more context could have been inserted rather than a simple text introduction in the beginning which explained the dire nature of the allied situation. My ever patient wife who accompanied me to Dunkirk was promised, by me, an easy to follow war film. I pictured the likes of Saving Private Ryan, because I had been told to. Yet poor Anna reasoned afterwards that one must need to be a history buff in order to understand it - and she's by no means a slouch in the history department herself!
Anna's comment got me thinking about the way we're dropped into the different scenes Dunkirk has to offer. Would a bit more eyes on the approaching German soldiers not have been warranted? Surely this would have kept the threat of the incoming enemy in focus? Yet, we do not even see the German side until Tom Hardy's arrest at the very end - if I'm not mistaken, with the exception of the Nazi leaflets dropped into the soldier's hands in the beginning, not a single swastika is present throughout the duration of this Second World War film, something which surely stands as some kind of record? At the same time, we must consider that the film does mean a lot to a lot of people - even making one Canadian veteran feel as though he was right back on the beaches of Dunkirk again.
Perhaps Nolan's aim was to capture Dunkirk's atmosphere with effects, sound and photography first, and characters second, but whatever his reasoning, I was left feeling somewhat let down by the promises made by the film, not to mention the overwhelmingly positive responses garnered by the film so far. I felt it didn't live up to these reviews - it simply fell flat. To call it the best or even one of the best war films ever made flies in the face of great storytelling, which in the art of film making is supposed to be at the core. It doesn't matter how well you manage to depict the war or how accurately you portray its events if the storyline feels more confusing than Inception, and if the characters feel blander than a white rice sandwich. To me, Dunkirk is good as an surface portrayal of the British experience, yet it is fundamentally shallow to a degree that those looking for a engaging story and identifiable characters will be left wanting.
We will thus give Dunkirk 6 bombs out of 10.
What do you think of Dunkirk? Was it everything you wanted it to be and more, or were you left feeling somewhat deflated at the end? Make sure and let me know through the usual channels.
All images owned by Warner Bros Entertainment.