Just One View: ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)

A fine piece in the Guardian asking whether Christopher Nolan’s hit the heights of being the new ‘Stanley Kubrick’. I’ve always suspected that maybe the other Nolan and Kubrick connection is that they’d both qualify as British-American or American Brits and that there’s some proprietorial affection for them in the UK in addition to admiration for their film-making but that affection might have let them get away with sub-standard work which must be good because it’s Stanley Kubrick/Christopher Nolan. I went for two toilet breaks during a screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ because a walk to stretch my legs seemed more attractive than continuing to watch the film while it took me five screenings of Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ before I finally started to appreciate it and, as good as ‘Barry Lyndon’ and ‘The Shining’ are, in a lot of ways, I think that Kubrick’s really great work was up to and including ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

Nolan was born in London to a British father and American mum, or”mom”; has dual citizenship; spent a lot of time going between London and Illinois and is now one of the biggest name film-makers in Hollywood. While Kubrick previously held that title despite having constantly lived and filmed in the UK for just over the last half of his life (since Lolita in 1962) and had a family who grew up in the home counties. I gather that they moved the kids with them when they filmed ‘Lolita’ and couldn’t bear uprooting them when it was finished and thus there they stayed. There is the idea that he was stuck because he had come to be scared of flying and that kept him stranded but there are more ways to travel than just by air. Here’s a great picture of Kubrick and family going to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth in, I guess, late 1967, early 1968.

As a side note, Alfonso Cuarón has been a Londoner for nearly a third of his life and Terry Gilliam was once a bit pissed off to receive some award for best international film-maker when he’d been nailed to London for many decades; had brought up a happy British family and jokingly asked what did he still have to do to be treated as home talent?

Anyway, what of ‘Dunkirk’ as a film? The line between sound design and musical score seems to generally be getting smaller all the time and that’s all to the good. That horrible feeling engendered by the sound of a dive-bombing plane seemed deeply embedded within much of the score thus keeping this viewer, at least, in a constant state of dread. Regarding the connections between Nolan and Kubrick, the score in its totality made me think of the atonal work in The Shining by Krzysztof Penderecki, Wendy Carlos et al. Indeed, I felt that was almost some Bernard Herrmann-style ‘Psycho’ in there too: it’s some great work. It helps the film become something that genuinely gets near to being an entity that terrorises and traumatises.

The blasts of bombs and gun shots seemed much less the usual ‘hyper-real’ sounds but more ‘real-real’ and it scared the heck out of me. It made me think of Ken Loach’s ‘Land and Freedom‘. If you watch that again, notice the guns: they all sound like the emanate from where the fighters are, within the action, and, as such, sound more threatening and believable. Here too, the film seemed to place colossal emphasis on a spacial sound that conformed to what we were seeing. Again, just fantastic work and the lack of overt gore and the missing ‘shaki-cam’ were blessed reliefs on the grounds of cliché.

It was refreshing that there wasn’t too much exposition jammed into character’s mouths disguised as dialogue. Poor Ellen Page had to carry that weight in ‘Inception’ and you had astronauts asking other astronauts questions that they surely already knew the answers to in ‘Interstellar’ but here the one screen of text and a couple of visual clues were excellent short cuts. The usual drawing of characters for me wasn’t missed really and it probably helped it all come in at trim 106 minutes. One would have been otherwise looking at 150 minutes, with a film-maker racing around trying to close all the disparate stories. Who needs that? The film was about a collective situation. Besides, I don’t think that my nerves could have stood a much more of a pounding.

I understand the 12A (equal to the U.S. PG-13) certificate within modern standards but great films like this make a mockery of the ratings system. The film trafficks in horror-level terror, as it should do, but the few uses of the F-word and the lack of gore saw it under the 12A wire when the film could hardly have done a better, more appropriate job in conveying the mind-boggling fear, the savagery, the gruesomeness, the ghastliness. Like when the censors cut Ollie Reed having his legs smashed in in ‘The Devils‘ and then they put what they’d cut back in or when the U.S. censors did the same with the opening Drew Barrymore sequence in ‘Scream’, some film-makers are too good at what they do to be defined and interpreted by a set of arbitrary external signifiers.

I’m not usually a huge fan of Christopher Nolan: his films tend to fall to pieces, from plot holes and seeing the joins, on the second or third watch and his overly possessive fan base are tiresome and can even be feral but I feel that this is a stupendous piece of work: terrifying and very moving. Like an art film on a Hollywood canvas. Exceptional. I struggle to think of a better film this year. Time will give us the distance to be able to correctly assess its place in the war movie pantheon but it might well be one for the ages.

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