Beach Front

There’s a moment early in the brisk 100 minutes of Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK that struck me as rather false, and it kind of took me out of the movie, although in fact I stayed in the movie and saw all of it. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, having reached Dunkerque beach, pauses to take a dump in the sand. But we don’t get a strenuous, epic Wim Wenders type defecation. It’s just a quick drop-trou, look nobly into the distance, and then pants up again jobbie. No troublesome, uncinematic wiping or anything like that. This made me worry for our hero’s comfort during the rest of the film, and I wished he’d waded into the cleansing English Channel to do his business.

I suppose you could argue that maybe Mr. Whitehead’s poo was hygienically solid, tough and tightly assembled, like MEMENTO. But I fear that after the foreign environment, army food and the stress of battle, it would be more likely to be splashy, explosive and incredibly protracted, like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

(I could take this comparison further. After days of tension and combat, Mr. Fionn Whitehead’s pooing would resemble THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in the way it would drown out dialogue, cause people to put on masks, and bring tears to Sir Michael Caine’s eyes.)

Worse, Mr. Whitehead defecates on a sand dune, gazing out to see, with the likely result that anything emerging from his bottom would roll downhill and end up in his trousers.

I felt a lot of concern about this since, in my haste to attend the 10 a.m. press show at Edinburgh Filmhouse, where the film screened in 70mm, I narrowly avoided a humiliating toilet accident of my own which would have made me late. There. You don’t get that amount of confessional detail from Kenneth Turan. Not even from Harry Knowles.

Travelling further back in time, like the protagonist of MEMENTO, I passed a restless night in which I dreamed that there was a SECOND Bologna film festival in July, and that I was missing it. So, Christopher Nolan has successfully incepted a dream into my head. In reality I was subconsciously worrying about oversleeping and missing DUNKIRK, only my dream made it much more suspenseful by making it something I would really care about. In the event, Lord Momo, our cat (a rare Tonkinese Battlehorn) woke me up in plenty of time, at 5 a.m., by screaming his head off and randomly batting objects from shelves. He’s better than any alarm clock, is Momo, except that (a) you can SET an alarm clock and (b) you can STOP an alarm clock. You don’t have to just carry it through to another room and shut it in.

But back to DUNKIRK. I enjoyed it. It has that effect of making war seem like a lovely, heroic, colourful adventure in which you end up maimed or dead.

It has three stories/timelines, furiously intercut like the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. The three narrative thrusts are each introduced by a superimposed title: THE MOLE: 1 WEEK; THE SEA: 1 day; THE AIR: 1 hour. These intros baffled me, and I spent the whole film trying to figure out what they meant. As the end credits rolled, I figured it out. So, in case you’re not brighter than me (I’d say there’s a good chance you ARE), I’ll explain what I figured out. The Mole must be a nickname for Whitehead’s inept beach crapper. His story lasts a week, mostly spent waiting on the beach or trying to inveigle his way onto rescue craft. The journey by boat of the BFG (played by Mark Rylance) takes a day. The flight by Mad Max (played by Tom Hardy) takes an hour.

So by intercutting these different timescales as if they were happening simultaneously, the movie is playing a game similar to that of INCEPTION.

“I didn’t see why the subconscious should have so many explosions in it,” said my friend Toni Dove after INCEPTION.

“Well, that was a weird sort of Brexit fantasy,” said my friend David Sorfa after DUNKIRK.

And indeed, the film is all about ESCAPING FROM EUROPE. And we seem very keen to LEAVE THE FRENCH BEHIND. But then, at the end, Kenneth Branagh magnanimously says they can come too, now that we’ve gotten ourselves out. So it’s having its gateau and eating it, in a fine cinematic tradition.

I recommend the cast list: it’s hilarious. Characters include IRATE SOLDIER, SHIVERING SOLDIER and FURIOUS SOLDIER. But not IRATE, FURIOUS, SHIVERING SOLDIER, which would have been the role I’d have accepted if they’d offered it. But the cast list does not include Michael Caine. I thought I heard his voice, coming in over Tom Hardy’s radio, explaining why we’re leaving from Dunkirk and not Calais, in the kind of mistimed and unnecessary exposition Nolan seems so fond of. Since Sir Michael has valuable experience winning THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, it would be nice of his mate Nolan to ask him along.

I’m not alone in having found Nolan’s direction of action confusing and irksome in the past. Nothing to worry about here: he’s helped by the very clear geography of the beach: sea over there, land over here. Germans up there, Brits down here. In the aerial combat, he might have gotten into serious trouble (three-dimensional battlefield) but by restricting our POV to the British pilots, he keeps it very sharp and taut and lucid. When the Spitfires are sneaking up on Heinkels we see it from the Brit pilot’s viewpoint. When the Germans sneak up on the Spitfires their ack-ack is a complete surprise, as it would be if you were there. This means losing out on dramatic he’s-behind-you irony but gaining pretty solid clarity and audience identification, better than in several of the old war movies I’ve run.

But I wasn’t actually moved. The last two movies I saw at the cinema, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, had me quite tearful. The only emotional bit in this was when I started thinking about war movies I like that were made in or immediately after the war. I’m a sucker for the drama of that period. I think possible one reason Nolan’s film left me unaffected in this way was his relentless intercutting, which kills the terror-suspense of all the vehicles filling up with water (great Dutch tilts and even inverted angles on fast-rising waterlines, though). And also the weird unrealistic realism like the gravity-defying poo, and a bit in a boat filling up with water where somehow they all think throwing somebody overboard will allow them to float.

Proprietary pleasure: Brian Vernel, who was in our LET US PREY, turns up. Amused to see that Nolan treats him just as harshly as we did. In an early draft of our film we had his bollocks lopped off. Considering what happens to him here, I’d hate to think what the early drafts were like.

What else? Good use of Tom Hardy. Lots of sound design. No Americans and barely any women. Lots of hard-to-make-out dialogue. A sort of actionably close remix of Elgar’s Nimrod by Hans Zimmer (the man who has repurposed the symphony orchestra as a percussion instrument). Harry Styles from the popular boy band Wonder Erection. The Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, as a man who does something bad and then doesn’t have a character arc about it, which is a novelty in this age. Kenneth Branagh in the Jack Hawkins part, but unfortunately and inevitably seeming more like Kenneth More.

I prefer the Leslie Norman version, but then I would (John Mills never shits on the beach). You could say that this movie, with its state-of-the-art everything, bears the same relation to that movie as Cameron’s TITANIC to Roy Ward Baker & Eric Ambler’s A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. Despite the immersive technique of both modern films, the older ones give you more of an emotional feeling of being there. Something to do with conviction.



14 Responses to “Beach Front”

  1. IOW it’s a Richard Attenborough CGI “spectacular”

  2. …Except that Nolan prefers practical effects (though obviously there’s a tonne of “enhancements”). What’s interesting, possibly, is how throughly it rejects the blood-and-chaos aesthetic of Saving Private Ryan’s landing sequence. The violence here is very mild and the approach is, as you say, epic, rather than gritty you-are-there.

  3. So incredibly intense. Nice review.

  4. chris schneider Says:

    Hans Zimmer, “the man who has repurposed the symphony orchestra as a percussion instrument” — exactly! I won’t get moist and complain about the absence of Music Like They Used To Write. Still, though, I’ve noticed the disappearing of counterpoint from much contemporary film-scoring. It seems to be a matter of “[film gesture] ORCHESTRAL ‘THONK!'” Gone are the subtleties of Korngold’s Errol Flynn scores. Hell, even those of Tiomkin’s middling score for STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

  5. Perhaps if they’d gone in for a different kind of realism: not just Fionn Whitehead but a few hundred thousand soldiers having a mass dump on the sand.
    Where is Ennio Morricone?

  6. peter quinn Says:

    “But I wasn’t actually moved” I found it very moving and one of the best and most engaging films I’ve seen in a long time.

    By the way, have you seen Henri Verneuil’s “Weekend at Dunkirk”, made in 1964?

  7. bensondonald Says:

    My favorite sort-of war movie in recent years is “Nazi Titanic”, a made-for-TV documentary about a German wartime production intended to present the British as corrupt and unworthy.

    For the first hour or so you’re thinking, this would make an amazing movie. Then you’re thinking it’s not possible to make the story any more dramatic / lunatic / horrific than it already is.

    A few details:
    — Joseph Goebbels discovered that Hollywood-style fiction was more effective than straightforward propaganda. Like a Hollywood mogul, he craved an international box-office hit and was ready to spend a fortune to get it.
    — The director was granted unlimited resources even as the war was turning against Germany, including an actual liner and troops to use as extras.
    — One night the director bad mouthed the Nazis …
    — When completed, the film couldn’t be shown in Berlin. The scenes of panic and terror were too much for a city then being bombed.
    — And just when you think the madness is over …

  8. I thought he basically aborted the bowel movement when he saw the burial taking place.

    I felt this was good enough, but was rather brought down by not really having any characters and by the wall-to-wall music drowning out everything and stepping on every moment that otherwise might have played out naturally. Though I’ll give Nolan some credit for extending his Griffithian intercutting through slicing through not only space but time (which I suppose was in fact anticipated to some degree in Inception).

  9. Good piece!

    Peter, I’m happy you were moved. I definitely wasn’t, and this puzzled me since I’m normally a sucker for real-life sacrifice stories.

    I think it’s true that Whitehead calls of his dump. But his technique still seems bad, and the moment harms the realism rather than enhancing it (I didn’t buy how he suddenly spots someone in plain view who was there all the time) just as I didn’t like him and his pals running down the middle of a street, like the Beatles, while under fire.

    Zimmer’s kind of thing can work, but he seems to be everywhere, and his imitators are everywhere else.

    I’ve always been curious about Nazi Titanic…

  10. I honestly do think the lack of being moved (which I share) is due to the use of the music. For instance, the scene where the private boats finally arrive on the shore to the cheers of the soldiers and sailors — this is an inherently powerful moment, and I think the cheers of the rescued would carry that (there are few things more moving than heartfelt applause and rejoicing). Yet the throbbing strings completely sucked away the natural energy for me.

  11. Ye-es. I blame the constant intercutting more. Being in a confined space filling up with water is the stuff of nightmares. Letting that play out in real time would be very scary and the sense of relief palpable. But it in two with another two scenes in between and it’ll be one third as effective.

  12. Oh, and the Mole? It’s what the damn Frenchies called the jetty / pier / thing…

  13. Yes, somebody was pointing this out on Facebook. Seems a strange thing to assume audience knowledge of, in a film which asks us to believe most soldiers don’t know how frequent the tides change. And an unnecessarily obscure way to talk about a sequence which largely happens on the shoreline, not on the mole itself.

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