Sunday, 30 July 2017

David at the movies: Retreat for Victory


Remember the opening scenes in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan? The Normandy beach landings in June 1944. Explosions on the beach, bullets zipping through the guys in the sea. Dunkirk offers the same visceral experience of combat, only it lasts for an hour and three quarters. There are a few moments of calm between battles and bombardments, but these are always the preamble to the next grim phase of the conflict.

Christopher Nolan has directed some weird movies (Memento, Inception, the Dark Knight Batman trilogy). His only ‘weirdness’ here is to take three separate time frames – a week for the men on the beach, one day for the flotilla of small craft setting out to rescue them and one hour for the Spitfire pilots fighting the German bombers – and meld them into a fairly seamless narrative that condenses the drama into a solid 90 minutes of nerve-shredding tension. The scenes onboard a sinking mine-sweeper are among the most harrowing depictions of the total horror of war I've seen.

There are panoramic CGI shots to show the sheer size of the retreating army (400,000) but the script focuses on one soldier fighting to survive the day (Fionn Whitehead), one fishing boat captain (Mark Rylance) and one RAF pilot (Tom Hardy): these three are used to bring home to us that each of the soldiers and their rescuers had a backstory – a home, a family, a life – that they were laying on the line for their country, their king and their fellow men. A spot-the-celebrity element includes cameo appearances from Harry Styles, Michael Biehl and others whom I failed to identify. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play naval officers who occasionally veer close to the officers parodied in Oh What a Lovely War! – I hope this was intended.

Dunkirk joins the ‘pantheon’ of all-time great war movies and will surely win awards next winter. I was misty-eyed through much of it – and not just because my dad was one of the soldiers who went to Belgium and didn’t come back (I was two years old). There’s a temptation to see the ‘strategic retreat’ from the French coast in 1940 as an awful defeat, when in fact – as this version makes clear – many of the 300,000-plus men who were brought safely home to England returned to Normandy in 1944 to begin the destruction of Hitler’s military machine.


Not a lot to say about this. There’s a limit to how much magic today’s over-done CGI can inject into to a franchise that’s run out of steam. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the thinking man’s King Kong, takes the last band of apes to a mining colony run by the vicious Colonel Woody Harrelson, where Caesar’s son is among the prisoners. The war is not just between the slave-apes and their masters (humans and ‘collaborator’ gorillas) but also between the colony and another army of humans who’ve survived the apocalyptic virus.

There are pleasing nods to other movies outside the genre. Some early snowscape panoramas reminded me of David Lean's awesome cinematography in Doctor Zhivago, and the prison colony is a cross between Mad Max’s Thunderdome and Kurtz’s jungle hideout in Apocalypse Now. Woody Harrelson’s ‘transition’ from monster to misfit makes no sense, and the humanity of the 'good' apes contrasted to the inhumanity of the humans is ladled on much too thickly. The sequels to the 1968 Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes became progressively dafter, so we must hope they shelve the franchise back in the studio archive for a decade or two now that this remake trilogy is complete. 


Germany 1940. Anna and Otto Quangel receive the telegram that every parent dreads. Their only son has been killed during the Nazi invasion of France. Otto's reaction is to place handwritten postcards around the city denouncing the Hitler regime. The inspector (Daniel Bruhl) in charge of finding the ‘traitor’ gets harsh treatment from his superiors as the cards keep turning up. But it only takes a small mishap for the case to be solved and justice, swiftly and harshly, administered.

This is a true story, recreated in a city very much like 1940s Berlin with ageing trams and the ever-present swastika banners. Emma Thompson's Anna has one moment of rage against her son’s death, and then for the rest of the movie her grief is internalised but always vivid in her face. Brendan Gleeson's Otto keeps his emotions even more in check, but you sense his concentrated fury as he slowly pens the seditious cards, careful to disguise his handwriting.

I didn’t know that the Nazis used the guillotine – that most grisly of capital punishments, always associated in my mind with France's revolutionary Reign of Terror. The fate of a Jewish widow in the Quangels' building is handled with a delicate touch that barely hints at the vaster horrors which lie in the years ahead.

The film has some of the flavour of repertory theatre. Its slight story gains magnitude from the subtle intensity of the two central performances. It perhaps does well to remind us that not all Germans rolled over in the face of the Nazi ‘machine’ – and that the loss of a son is just as momentous to an enemy as to ourselves and our allies.


The critics have not taken very kindly to this 4-day biopic, but I found much to admire. It’s June 1944, in the week before D-Day, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Brian Cox) is having grave doubts about the Normandy landings. World War One saw a similar beachhead go catastrophically wrong at Gallipoli, and Churchill took much of the blame for the disaster. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery (John Slattery and Julian Wadham) are gung-ho for a great victory, and even King George (James Purefoy) is quietly optimistic. Clementine, Mrs Churchill (Miranda Richardson), worries about her husband’s stress – and his drinking. She doesn’t seem to worry about his smoking: we hardly ever see him without a cigar.

This is something of a ‘chamber piece’, more like a play than a movie, all talk and little action. There are no battle scenes; the Blitz is in the past; London is more or less a safe place in which to be planning a mighty campaign to defeat Hitler and Nazism. Brian Cox is made up to be a very believable Winston and he does a splendid job with the great man’s voice without lapsing into caricature. Only the cigars are overdone.

The rest of the cast are convincing, although Ms Richardson could have done with some sharper lines: her Clemmie is a bit like a Jane Austen mumsical matriarch. Cox is well-served by the script, although critics and historians are claiming that Churchill never actually had the four dark days of doubt and despair pictured here. There’s a scene of him at prayer which becomes very Shakespearean – the PM as King Lear!

So: a talky drama, not slight but a bit slender (in spite of Churchill’s Hitchcockian girth). The eve of a great moment in history. Authentic or not, this is stirring stuff.

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