A note on “Dunkirk”

Christopher Nolan’s epic is that rare thing, a blockbuster that doesn’t feature superheroes. I wanted to see it quite early in its run before my experience of it was skewed by the chatter but nonetheless I think I suffered from overly high expectations.

As often happens with films/books/programmes that get universally and hyperbolically acclaimed as Total Bloody Masterpieces I came away a bit disappointed, which isn’t really fair on the film/whatever itself, but then I might not have made the effort to see it otherwise.

For me Dunkirk was like a modernist skyscraper. I greatly admired it as an achievement. I was in awe of it as a feat of narrative engineering and technical prowess. But I didn’t love it.

Nolan has done something genuinely, artistically brave and incredibly difficult to achieve: he’s made a big budget Hollywood movie that doesn’t follow narrative conventions. It doesn’t, for instance, have one central character for us to follow. It has minimal uplift; it is, in fact, pretty relentlessly downbeat throughout.

The way he weaves together the three stories is extremely skilful, from a writing perspective and even more from an editing perspective. The film’s basic thematic structure — the three stories are organised around the ancient idea of the elements — is elegant and strong, like the skyscraper’s steel frame.

The cinematography is amazing, from close-ups of hellish situations (like the solider trapped underwater while fire rages on the surface) to sweeping shots of the beach (although I would have liked to have got more of a sense of quite how many people there were — 400k!).

But its big failing is that, for a film about the human struggle to survive, it has very little humanity. There is minimal dialogue, and many moody stares. This doesn’t make the characters more ‘elemental’, it just makes them two dimensional, and difficult to believe in or have any feelings for.

All of the idiosyncrasy and perversity and bravado and spontaneity of actual men is washed out. There is no swearing, and, unforgivably, virtually no laughter (humourlessness being one of Nolan’s signature traits). A film about adversity — particularly British people under adversity — that doesn’t involve humour is fundamentally unserious.

Not one of the soldiers, who were played by unfeasibly healthy looking and handsome actors, felt like a real, intriguing, compelling person. When the characters did speak they mostly did so in predictable ways. Mark Rylance brought his extraordinary soulfulness to his part but he didn’t have much to go on other than “stoic decency”.

There were isolated, clumsy attempts to make us feel something, as if someone had told Nolan he needed some emotional engagement and he reluctantly forced some in. Branagh’s tears when the little boats arrive (Branagh was totally unbelievable all round, though that’s the dialogue’s fault not his I think). Worst of all the boy who dies on Rylance’s boat. That incident just felt odd and inexplicable. It was not earned by the story. What, he just falls over and…dies? Poor lad, sacrificed to the cause of cut price pathos.

So, great accomplishment, but not a great film. I’m imagining what Richard Linklater — a director who revels in humanity — might have done with this script…