2017-08-10

sovay: (Rotwang)
And now for something completely different: a movie that's still playing in theaters as we speak. I didn't manage to get it written up in July, but the movie I dashed out to catch after writing up Way Out West (1930) was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). The Somerville not only has a 70 mm print and the Philips Norelco DP70s to screen it on, it has David the projectionist who learned his trade on the format and handles it beautifully, so I figured I would not have a better chance to see it however Nolan intended. His films have a very mixed track record with me, so I was not sure what to expect.

The very short version: while I did not love the film as I had hoped I would, I don't think it fails its history and I liked it. It's visually striking, elegantly structured, and often curiously, intentionally anti-epic even while it's staging cast-of-thousands setpieces with a sweeping, elemental approach to historical fact. It's a war movie in which the first event on the fabled beach of Dunkirk is a combat-stunned young Tommy, thin, dark-haired, looking like a scarecrow in the heavy folds of his uniform greatcoat and whatever kit survived his scrambling, lucky escape from enemy fire in the falling city, wandering around the dunes looking for a place to take a shit because he damn near just had it scared out of him and instead finds another equally young, equally silent soldier burying a corpse, one cold, crusted foot just poking out of the sand. So he can't actually use that dune as a latrine because you don't crap on graves, especially not when you suspect they belong to other people's mates; he rebuckles his trousers and goes to help with the burial. That's a whole cross-section of a war in a few wordless minutes, black-humored, elegiac, still heart-hammering adrenaline from the soldier's race through deserted streets inhabited only by the eerie snowfall of propaganda fliers and machine-gun fire out of nowhere, splattering the men he was running alongside a moment ago. His name is Tommy, although neither my mother nor I picked that up until the credits; he's played by Fionn Whitehead in his screen debut and except for a few key scenes he is almost, like several other roles in this film, a silent part, anchoring the story with his wiry body and his dark-freckled, truculent face. Because he's one of our metonyms for the stranded soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, it would have been easy to cast him pretty, innocent. He has the vulnerability of extreme youth, but he's also a little feral, something of a scrounger—a clever bit player, maybe, in a different kind of war film. This one shifts him and his fellow extras to center stage, displacing the more familiar heroism of steadfast warriors or brilliant strategists. The closest we get to the former are Tom Hardy's Farrier and Jack Lowden's Collins, Spitfire pilots aloft for one crucial hour to provide air cover for the most exposed phase of the evacuation; the closest we get to the latter is Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the tireless, anxious pier-master with a host of unenviable decisions to make. The much-mythologized decency of the ordinary Briton is represented by Mark Rylance's Dawson, the mildly spoken, cardigan-wearing civilian whose motor yacht the Moonstone is one of the shallow-draft "little ships" that can get safely to the beach where destroyers would founder, but even he has odd cracks and ripples that come late to light. The most important thing about the film, I think, whatever its faults, is that it recognizes the violence and the chaos and the terror and the failure without capsizing into grimdark or overcompensating into triumphalism. The ships did come. They never should have had to, but they did. And that was the end of the phony war and just the beginning of the real one.

That's enough. )

I don't know what most people of my nationality and generation know about Dunkirk. I don't know what they'll take away from this movie. It plays like it was meant to be the last cinematic word on the history, but so was Leslie Norman's Dunkirk (1958) and that had John Mills and Richard Attenborough going for it; I'm sure we can expect a new hot take in another sixty years. Personally I don't think it will displace The Prestige (2006) as my favorite Christopher Nolan, but there's a lot in it I'm still thinking about. My mother liked it and the history is important to her. The last image is as powerfully open-ended as it needed to be. I feel stupidly proud of myself for recognizing Michael Caine's uncredited cameo by voice. I guess I have opinions about cinematography. This homecoming brought to you by my fiery backers at Patreon.
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