Dunkirk – froth, bubble and a lot of noise

Christopher Nolan is a director of rare skill, depth, thoughtfulness, profundity and power. Memento, Inception and Interstellar, in particular, are brimming with ideas and you leave the cinema thinking, discussing, dissecting and struggling to understand what you have just seen.

Unfortunately, Dunkirk is none of these things. It is a film, full of sound and fury, signifying not nothing, but not very much.

The story (for those under 50) is swiftly told. It is the early days of the second war and France and Belgium have been swiftly over-run by the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force is hopelessly outnumbered and trapped in Dunkirk. Do they stay and fight or should they be evacuated? They are evacuated with the assistance of a flotilla of little privately-owned motor-boats and yachts. And er, that’s it.

The film re-tells this story mainly through three inter-weaved characters and story lines. Fionn Whitehead plays a young Tommy, desperate to escape. Mark Rylance is the plucky, retired, tweed-suited owner of a small motor launch while Tom Hardy is the stiff upper-lipped, strong-jawed Spitfire pilot who mostly mumbles through a mask, just like in The Dark Knight. They all survive. Some secondary characters, various German airmen and a lot of extras don’t and are variously blown to bits.

Kenneth Branagh plays the senior Naval Officer who gazes wistfully towards the white cliffs of Dover and says ‘home’ when asked what he is looking at. A tear forms in his eyes. Harry Styles plays another Tommy, alternately nasty and then good, who also escapes. Styles doesn’t have a great deal to do but he does it well enough; he may have an alternative career if the singing thing doesn’t work out.

I sound cynical but I don’t (entirely) mean to be.

The trouble with Dunkirk is that it has no depth, there is no story to speak of, there are no sub-plots, there is no deeper meaning. It is what it is – some soldiers escape and some die and Britain lives to fight another day. Nolan is not English but this is jingoistic nonsense and we’ve seen it all before, but even ‘Battle of Britain’ (Christopher Plummer and Susannah York consummate their doomed love affair above the skies of Kent, made in 1969) had darker under-currents; Dunkirk has none.

This film is all on the surface. The images are searing and visceral, the sound-track is pounding and in your face, the messages are clear and the good guys survive. But… it’s a 12A so although lots of soldiers are blown to bits and some very realistic models of warships are destroyed and sunk, there is very little blood, no real pain and because you don’t know, or particularly care about the characters, you’re not really affected by it. Saving Private Ryan (Stephen Spielberg’s not dissimilar 1998 film about the D-Day landings) recreated the Normandy beach scenes in horrific, shocking eyeball-searing  images – you saw and felt the pain of injury and death. In Dunkirk, you don’t.

You can see Dunkirk as a Brexit film – we leave Europe and spend the rest of our days sitting in steam trains in backward sidings reading Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech in a newspaper sold to us by plucky, dirty-faced boys in shorts: Britain wins!

Or you can see it as a remainer film – we depart from Europe by any means possible, our tail between our legs, beaten and bowed, while the rest of Europe sails on, into a sunlit sea. Britain loses!

I prefer the latter view.

And the French lad, trapped in the ship; does he drown? Thought so.


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