This film about the evacuation of Dunkirk uses three different timelines – a week for the soldiers stranded on the French beach, a day for the English boat-owner who joins the rescue fleet and a mere hour for the Spitfire pilots trying to shoot down German Stukas before they can sink too many rescue ships. I had read about this beforehand so didn’t find it puzzling that one minute we’re in broad daylight and the next it’s night on the beach, then back to broad daylight. I’m not sure the technique totally succeeded because some people who weren’t forewarned, including my sister Judy, found it confusing.
Judy also thought it seemed to take forever for the English boat-owner to get across the Channel, even if he did have to rescue a couple of fellas floundering in the water on the way. But the fact that he was played by the wonderful Mark Rylance made up for it in my opinion.
I do agree with Judy that when the rescue fleet starts to arrive there’s too few of them, and there aren’t enough men on the beach given there were supposed to be about 400,000 taken off in a flotilla of 900 vessels over several days. You’d think it would have been easy to fill in the numbers digitally.
Judy also mentioned that one long shot of the beach and the town behind appears to show buildings of ‘60s vintage. I must admit this occurred to me too, but I thought my eyes must have been deceiving me and I readily forgave this.
While not as explicitly bloody as Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk is in many ways more harrowing, with moments of almost unbearable tension. In a way it was more authentic too: there’s no jingoism, no larger-than-life heroics, no concocted romance, no personal backstories to add ‘human interest’ and, mercifully, no speech anachronisms.
Kenneth Branagh as the British commander on the Dunkirk mole supplies just the right amount of stiff-upper-lipped emotion when in a rare reflective moment he observes wistfully that from where they are they can almost see ‘home’.
There’s a sublime scene towards the end when a young soldier reads Churchill’s famous ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech from a newspaper. He’s made it home but he’s still traumatized by his fearful ordeal and he reads it aloud slowly and haltingly to his mates on the train who want to know how things have been going on the home front. It’s the most moving rendition I’ve ever heard of this surpassingly brilliant piece of rhetoric. Did I shed a tear? You betcha.
I praised Dunkirk‘s lack of jingoism, but I reckon they should have named the Germans rather than just saying ‘the enemy’. To quote Basil Fawlty: who won the bloody war!?!
This review was first published on Facebook on July 27, 2017.