Thanks to reviews of Dunkirk, I learned that Christopher Nolan has a phobia about drowning. Or at least that drowning features again and again in his movies. Also, I think he’s colour blind, and he hates digital, which leads to things like faking a drowning in an aeroplane by not faking it at all and practically drowning the actor for real. And also faking your crowd scenes on the beach in Dunkirk by using cardboard cutout for most of the soldiers. I was slightly surprised by that, since my assumption about Christopher Nolan’s approach to casting is that he just asks everyone he knows and they show up out of curiosity about what he’s up to now. Collateral to that was the notion that if he wanted extras, all he needed to do was mention it to the internet. But cardboard cutouts is the way that he went. In a weirdly retro way, it’s practically cool.
Anyway, if you like drowning, you’ll love Dunkirk. There’s just loads of drowning. People drowning in ditched Spitfires, people drowning in beached trawlers, people drowning in sunken warships.
As a movie that isn’t about drowning, I’m not so sure. It’s great looking, and it’s focused on one simple thing, and the performances are low key and convincing. Well, maybe not Kenneth Branagh, who spends the whole movie explaining what’s going on to people who already know damn well what’s going on. You could argue that this isn’t realistic, except that for a lot of jobs it’s the whole damn job in practice, but even if you think it’s realistic, it’s kind of a waste of time mixed with an insult to the audience’s intelligence. And the rest of the movie is about using every moment effectively, so the Branagh stuff sort of stands out a little.
The guy with the biggest investment in using time effectively is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, who has a whole hour’s worth of fuel and an apparently infinite supply of bullets. He spends most of the movie worrying about how much fuel he’s got left, before finally running out of fuel and having to glide into captivity at the hands of literally the only Germans we ever see in the whole thing. But at no point does he lose any sleep over ammunition, even though he’s got about 18 seconds worth of it. I wasn’t timing it the way I ought to have been, and maybe he only does fire eighteen seconds worth of machine guns, but it seems uncharacteristic that he doesn’t worry at all about running out of ammunition. Somehow, that bugged me, as did the way he put on his goggles once both the other Spitfires had ditched and we didn’t need to see the faces to know which pilot was which.
Still, these are quibbles. It’s a solid piece of work which has moments of real greatness, and naturally Nolan manages to pull off the excessively tricky narrative structure of an hour for the planes and a day for the boats and more than couple of days for the grunts (the intertitles lie; you don’t see a week’s worth of life on the Mole). And while Hardy has the fun job of being the unflappable pilot, the MVP for the whole movie is Mark Rylance’s small boat captain. Rylance does calm decency like no-one else I’ve ever seen. The movie is worth it just for that. Even if I did find myself afterwards thinking “All those boats came from the south coast of England. Just like all the UKIP voters who masterminded the current disorderly retreat from Europe. That’s weird…”