Friday 11 August 2017

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison enjoys DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, UK, 2017)

Back to the Beach.

I don’t normally put in the time and effort it takes to write about Multiplex releases - even things I enjoy like La La Land (Damian Chazelle, USA, 2016) or Young Adult (Jason Reitman, USA, 2011). I’m not their target audience and that lot's reactions are more instructive and probably more valid. Then again I’m not the target audience for their ethnic films either but nobody else is rushing into that void.

However Dunkirk is drawing - and not drawing - a range of comment that seems to be worth considering.

To start there is the effort of showing 70mm copies, which only lasted in the Event George Street for a week, though they were at sensible prices. As with their 3D, the operators say they are encountering buyer resistance. IMAX?  Well you can forget about that. Some of us have lived through the dwindling of sophisticated projection systems before.

I was in a thin attendance watching the last large film show in the city (it is still running in 70mm at Randwick & Cremorne). The look and the sound were genuinely impressive.  As with The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2015), the sharpness and skin texture were striking but the colour was desaturated towards the green end. If that was intentional you’ve got to wonder why. Also, as with Christopher Nolan’s other wide screen films you could spot a slight bowing on the horizontals, presumably the use of extreme wide angle lenses. There’s footage of cameraman Hoyte Van Hoytema shooting with that massive 65 mm. camera on his shoulder.

The track, with Hans Zimmer avoiding traditional orchestral cues, and great effects work like the bullets raking the fuselage is as impressive.

They are saying that there’s no CGI or models, though you’ve got to wonder. That downwards shot above Hardy flying low over the beach is suspect - too steady, too difficult. Thirteen hundred extras do just about get by as four hundred thousand but John Woo’s Red Cliff process flotilla is considerably more impressive than the apparently real one they muster here.

Kenneth Branagh, Dunkirk
There are no captions or narration and the only map is the one in the leaflet the Boche drop in the opening. However, the makers manage to integrate a lot of information - Commander Ken Branagh wanting the sinking rescue ship moved away from the pier, where it would block any other boat with a more than three foot draft,  and drowning the wounded, checking fuel for the return flight, not starting the evasive manoeuvre till the attacking plane commits to its dive or using the stranded fishing boat for target practice. By confining the action to the evacuation, with no briefings, no headquarters material and the only Germans a couple of blurry riflemen who show up at the end, we never get the notion that the fate of the world is at stake which Churchill (Jonathan Teplitzky, UK, 2017) and others managed to suggest.

That’s not this picture. The structure going from one high tension situation to the next as it also peaks and then back again sustained real suspense - though I did get to start thinking not that wretched Spitfire again.

From Fionn Whitehead, the surviving Tommy of the group cut down by German fire, finding his bolt action rifle jammed, it doesn’t let up and the three plot lines emerge. Him trying to get off the Beach at Dunkirk, Mark Rylance taking his small boat across the Channel and Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy (concealed in his oxygen mask) above, keyed by soldier James Bloor on the bombed and strafed beach shouting “Where’s the bloody airforce?” All while Branagh stands on the pier trying to channel Kenneth Moore. Rylance is the only one given any real back story or maybe he’s just good enough to make it register.

I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s not a superior movie but there’s something happening here. The deservedly abused British war movie went through an evolution. From Tell England (Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas, UK, 1931) (digger hatted soldier declaims “Australia will be there” on the shores of Gallipolli) through Western Approaches (Pat Jackson, UK, 1944) (“I say number one, there’s a submarine in the water ahead of us and - pause to fiddle with binoculars - I don’t think it’s one of ours”) till we get a hint of  the straining seams of British society in the more thoughtful Morning Departure (Roy Ward Baker, UK, 1950) and The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, UK, 1953)

The Dunkirk evacuation itself gets a big shift away from Mrs. Miniver (USA, 1942) and the Ealing studios cheapo with Johnny Mills.  I didn’t spot anyone showing the troops Quai des brumes (Marcel Carne, France, 1938) the way they do in Atonement (Joe Wright, UK, 2007).

They do plant a woman sailor prominent in the shot of the boat arrivals and there’s one black face among the troops. What we do see here are things that are more startling in one of these films.  There’s bullying and division, with the queuing Grenadiers refusing to let outsiders join their line, the sailors ordering the stretcher bearers off the boat or the near lynch mob in the fishing boat, not to mention “Stand aside, officer coming through.” We even get funk, though Cillian Murphy is excused by shell shock and snaps out of it. 

Where’s all this coming from? Well there have been a string of more graphic American movies - think the bombing in Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, USA, 2001) (wish the rest of the film had been that good), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1998) and Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, Australia, 2016) which have made the old model obsolete but also Ken Burns, imposing 2007 documentary series The War. That certainly changed my take on WW2 and I suspect would have had the same effect on anyone who watched all its seven hours.

While Nolan’s Dunkirk is a remarkably original film it has also absorbed the other influences.  The striking final image with the steel helmets in the sand is very The Longest Day (Ken Annakin, Darryl F Zanuck, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, USA, 1962).  Derivation or common source?

Yes, I did spot the shipping containers and I’ll take people’s word for the fact that the webbing and patches are wrong but really what the heck? If we’ve got a new kind of movie then it’s not enough to apply the old kind of criticism as has largely been the case. Why are we getting Dunkirk movies (and TV productions) anyway when it’s WW1 that’s hitting its centenary. Nolan’s film is impressive but I rate it below his Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, 2005, The Dark Knight, 2008, The Dark Knight Rises 2012). Does this suggest that strip cartoon is a more significant element of our culture than military history?

It would be good if this one became a significant touchstone rather than another entry in the production line, something for the RSL Club Xmas shows.
Christopher Nolan, Kenneth Branagh

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