Both Hollywood and London seem to have rediscovered WWII of late with not one but two films about Winston Churchill heading to our movie screens before the end of the year. (CHURCHILL has already been released overseas while DARKEST HOUR is due out in November.) This week in Hong Kong it’s “Dunkirk Week” with two films about the Dunkirk evacuation hitting our cinemas at the same time. (See my review of THEIR FINEST.)
The Dunkirk evacuation, or Operation Dynamo, as it was known by its code name, took place from May 26 – June 4, 1940. With Germany’s swift invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France earlier that month, the Allied forces quickly found themselves surrounded on three sides with their backs to the sea. British troops were ordered to the French seaport of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to prepare for evacuation by boat across the channel to England. French, Dutch and Belgian soldiers, if they were able to get away from the war’s front lines, made it there too. The Luftwaffe weren’t about to let these soldiers leave so easily though, and they repeatedly strafed both the rescue boats and the men who were waiting on the beach and in the water. Though the Allies suffered tremendous losses during the operation – 11,000 were killed and another 40,000 were made prisoners of war – 198,000 British troops made it to safety, as well as 140,000 Allied troops, who were mainly from France.
Told as three stories – on land, at sea and in the air – that intermesh, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s new film, DUNKIRK, takes us back to the early days of the evacuation. Interestingly or perhaps surprisingly, the film opens not with a Nazi Panzer division mowing everything down in its path but six British soldiers walking in a deserted French town while propaganda leaflets rain down on them from above. Very quickly, the group is decimated by unseen soldiers and unseen bullets. One, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose name we only know from the closing credits, runs and makes his way to the beach where thousands of soldiers are lined up waiting to be ferried to safety across the English Channel. Wanting to get on a boat as quickly as possible, he and a fellow soldier pick up a wounded comrade and pretend to be stretcher bearers. The Nazis have other plans, however, and their warplanes regularly attack the ships and the men waiting there with deadly precision. Try as he may, he just can’t seem to get off the beach.
Meanwhile, back in England, the War Office is requisitioning private boats to assist in the rescue operation. A man surnamed Dawson (Mark Rylance, BRIDGE OF SPIES) and his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) decide to head out across the channel alone without a complement of sailors to assist them. Just as the boat is leaving the dock, Peter’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan, ’71) decides to join them. Midway across the channel, they reach an overturned boat that has just one very shell-shocked survivor (Nolan regular, Cillian Murphy, THE DARK NIGHT) whom they rescue before continuing on to the French coast. The soldier only wants to get home but he, too, is going in the opposite direction.
Up in the air, a team of RAF Spitfire pilots makes its way across the channel to take on the Luftwaffe. Led by Farrier (another Nolan regular, Tom Hardy, INCEPTION), the pilots slowly and methodically shoot down their unseen enemies while trying to stay alive themselves.
While all this sounds like it should make for interesting viewing, especially as we come to realise that time here is fluid (a Nolan trademark), the director has somehow managed to neglect injecting some soul into the film, leaving the audience to be passive viewers to his richly detailed canvas. War movies either illustrate patriotism, insanity or futility. DUNKIRK does none of these. (Okay, I’ll concede that Mr. Dawson is patriotic.) The first 45 minutes of this surprisingly short (for Nolan, at 106 minutes) film presents artistically shot vignettes of the chaos but provides zero character development. (The latter is also a Nolan trademark.) As there is sparse dialogue throughout, by the time the film ends we know very little about any of these people. It’s much like watching a Terrence Malick (TO THE WONDER) film – beautiful to look at, not much dialogue and what there is doesn’t make much sense anyway, heavy on music (by another Nolan regular, Hans Zimmer), and filled with characters that we don’t get emotionally attached to.
Yet so many critics are hailing this as Nolan’s masterpiece. Sorry, not me. I’ve never jumped on the Nolan bandwagon and I’m not about to do so with this film. If you’re expecting something emotionally draining like the opening act of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, you’re not going to find it here. If you’re expecting to get a lump in your throat or have your heart fill up with pride for the bravery that these men and women – soldiers and civilians – showed, nope, not here either. Or if you’re expecting to walk out of the cinema and think to yourself that war is crazy, well, yes, it is crazy and wasteful and horrible but you’re not going to get that here either. DUNKIRK could have been – should have been – more dramatic and more moving. Instead it’s just like a chocolate Easter bunny — nice to look at but hollow inside.
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