Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-USA, 2017)

Wishing you weren’t there

I’ve admired Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, Memento (US, 2000) and The Dark Knight (US-UK, 2008) in particular, but his previous films did not prepare me for the brilliance of Dunkirk; I almost felt literally blown away. I was certainly hanging on to my seat as the visceral representation (without needing gore) of the evacuation of Dunkirk was utterly gripping.

Nolan has spoken about his desire not to make a conventional war film (see interview in August Sight & Sound) but to show what it was like to have been involved in the evacuation, either on land, sea or air. At first I was confused by the titles telling us that land (‘the mole’) story was ‘one week’, the sea ‘one day’ and ‘the air’ one hour not realising that the film was collapsing three time scales into a 106 minute narrative. Inevitably, toward the end, they increasingly overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. I can’t think of any film that has done this and it is dramatically daring and effective.

I was unfortunate enough to see a tweet by Nigel Farage urging everybody to see this film (he had pictured himself in front of the poster) even thought Dunkirk was a ‘great’ British defeat. As David Bordwell points out:

‘A cynic could call the movie Profiles in Cowardice. Tommy flees German bullets and instead of helping the French hold the barricades, he keeps running. The French boy steals boots and an identity in order to get off the beach sooner.  He and Tommy try to slip on board a departing Red Cross ship as stretcher bearers. When that fails, they hide among the pilings. When the ship is hit, they leap into the water, the better to pretend to have been among the survivors and get a new ride. The Shivering Soldier wants to cut and run, and the soldiers who drift beyond the perimeter plan to use the blue trawler to carry them to safety, jumping the evacuation queue. All too often, despite acts of aid and comfort, it’s every man for himself.’ (‘The art film as event movie’)

Maybe Farage was overwhelmed by the immense evacuation, Zimmer’s score morphs momentarily in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the arrival of the civilian flotilla, and Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech we hear at the film’ conclusion. Although the Dunkirk story plugs into the myth of Britain’s greatness, Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in that, as Bordwell’s comment shows. His film portrays raw survival in all its ugliness as well as the bravery of the RAF pilots, in particular, and Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who represents the stoic civilian response.

The sound design was particularly effective in conveying what it was like to have been there, especially Hans Zimmer’s score which exploits the Shepard tone (and Shepard-Rissot glissando) a clever way of generating tension (see here for an explanation).

The editing between the three narratives works well; for example, an RAF pilot fighting to get out of his ditched Spitfire as the water flows in is cross cut by men scrambling to get out of a sinking ship. The chronology also allows us to understand the trauma of war: Cillian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’ is introduced as  suffering from PTSD but we see him later in the film, but earlier in the story, calmly telling men that they can’t get on an overfull rowing boat and they should swim back to shore. The contrast between the two, from authoritative to useless, strikes home.

At the climax, though to be honest most of the film felt climactic, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot saves the day in an impossible way; his plane is out of fuel but he still manages to down (off screen) a Stuka. Given the realism of what’s gone before this might have struck a sour note however I read it as foretelling what happened over the next five years. Britain won the war against impossible odds… Except, of course, it didn’t. The allies won the war for Britain would likely have lost if it had had to stand alone: we were all in it together and isolationism has no role in greatness.

The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France, 2011)

Muslims and Nazis

Muslims and Nazis

French films revisiting the role of their north African colonies have become somewhat in vogue in recent years; such as Days of Glory (Indigenes, Algeria-France-Morocco-Belgium, 2006). Free Men focuses on the true story of how the Grand Mosque, run by Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (played with suitable gravitas by veteran Michael Lonsdale), helped protect Jews from the Nazis. That’s a great story in itself given the conflagration that is engulfing Israel and the Occupied Territories at the moment. ‘Muslims and Nazis’: I don’t think I’d ever put the two together before watching this film which emphasises  how the former are hidden from western history. The film, co-written and directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, is to be welcomed on that basis but I also throughly enjoyed watching Tahar Rahim play Younes, a composite character, who finds his moral compass and joins the Resistance.

Rahim’s face is a wonderful tool, whether under questioning from the Petain police or wondering how to ‘chat up’ the woman he fancies, as its mobility dramatises the thoughts whirling around his head. There’s some great music too as Younes befriends a Jewish singer masquerading as a Muslim.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany, 2014)

War as it was and is

War as it was and is

I can’t find enough superlatives for this Danish TV series; simply, it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen. Ole Bornedal’s creation manages to  show the brutalities of war at the front, the consequences at home and the political stupidity that leads to pointless brutality. Bornedal, who wrote and directed the brilliant Just Another Love Story, uses the big budget to exemplary effect; I haven’t seen more terrifying war sequences and the performances are utterly engaging. The use of a framing story to link the events to the present is an effective device and the right wing backlash, in Denmark, showed it hit the mark. Those on the right like to live the myth not the reality.

The ending of the narrative is philosophical, accompanied by a tour de force use of sound. Another memorable moment was the blood running down the window to form the Danish flag as the PM had a breakdown. Throughout the direction is cinematic, that is using the image to tell the story rather than simply convey the script. Of course, the division between cinema and television is blurred these days; possibly the only distinction we can safely make is that serial form suits the latter. It’s not only the best TV I’ve seen but one of the best audiovisual texts I’ve ever experienced.

Fury (US-China-UK, 2014)

Grim as it was

Grim as it was

After a Saving Private Ryan (US, 1998) inspired cycle, few of which were successful, war films have not been considered to be commercially viable. Although I doubt if Fury will ignite another cycle it superbly conveys the tension of being in a tank to the extent I was squirming in my seat. It, unlike the brilliant Lebanon, doesn’t restrict the viewpoint to inside the tank. In fact, it eschews the space inside, as it’s more concerned with the battles. When we see the interior it’s mostly through characters’ reaction shots, but the film nevertheless conveys the terrifying atmosphere of being under attack in a slow tin can.

Writer-director David Ayer brings the full weight of CGI to the film to emphasise the violence, which is not for the squeamish. He portrays the misery of war to great effect; Fury takes place in April 1945, the last days of the Reich. While classical Hollywood would show cheery soldiers carrying on regardless, Ayer portrays the bullying of the rookie who’s dragooned into being the tank’s second driver. Pitt’s commander is merciless and fatherly; his nickname is ‘wardaddy’. You do get a clear impression that the bullying is necessary to toughen up the youngster or they could all die. Pitt’s crew, from John Bernthal’s thug to a surprisingly good Shia LaBoeuf, are all well acted. As is the case in many war films, understandably in ‘combat movies’, women are relegated to the margins.

If the climax is slightly at odds with the convincing representation of war seen earlier, the necessities of commercial cinema demand, in a war film, a big battle. That aside, the film is a perfectly pitched thriller that is very effective in showing the brutalising effect of war.

Giovanni’s Island (Jobanni no shima, Japan, 2014)

Magic and the reality of war

Magic and the reality of war

Whilst the demise of Studio Ghibli, after Miyazaki Hiyao’s retirement, has been exaggerated it is still reassuring to see an anime released in the UK; particularly one as good as Giovanni’s Island. It was screened as part of an ambitious programme, at the Kala Sangam centre, that attempts to keep arthouse cinema in Bradford after Picturehouse’s takeover of programming at the National Media Museum. After an almost sold out start, only three turned up the evening screening of this film. There are two more showings in the current season – check them out here and here.

Giovanni’s Island is a child eye’s view of the aftermath of  war when  Soviet soldiers occupied the northern Japanese island of the  setting. It’s also a ‘coming of age’ story, not as extreme as JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, however nonetheless it portrays the way in which children, in particular, are psychological (as well as physical) casualties of war. The relationship between ‘Giovanni’ (the non de plume of the protagonist is a reference to a famous Japanese novel Night on the Galactic Road) and Russian girl, Tanya, is heartbreakingly drawn. Some critics found the film sentimental however as the film is a child’s eye view this is entirely appropriate. Whilst there is a fine line between bathos and pathos, I do wonder if critics, who find themselves ‘tearing up’ tend to resist their emotional response by blaming the film.

The animation, as is usually the case with anime, looks fabulous though the drawing of characters is particularly undefined, even by anime’s standards.

’71 (UK, 2014)

Desperate times

Desperate times

The ‘Troubles’, which was a Civil War, haven’t entirely gone away but, as a tour guide said, I visited Belfast a couple of years ago, when glass-fronted buildings appeared in the city the people knew things had changed. ’71 takes us back to the time when the violence was escalating and shoots from the perspective of a typical squaddie. Jack O’Connell embodies, which is the apposite term as there’s not a lot of evidence of grey matter, Hook (the soldier) brilliantly as he is immersed in a war he knows nothing about. One of the few clearly good characters in the film, a Catholic ex-army medic (the terrific Richard Dormer), states the army is ‘Posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts’; an apt summary,

Hook is immediately immersed in street fighting and Yann Demange casts the film as a thriller which certainly grips with its febrile handheld camera; these scenes reminded me of Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday – high praise indeed. First time director Demange only shows his inexperience in a tense scene where Hook is trying to avoid the Provos on the stairwell of a block of flats; the continuity is more confusing than tense. David Holmes’ score is a standout.

As others have commented, the Sight & Sound review is particularly good, the lack of politics means it is a limited portrayal of Belfast in 1971; however within these limitations it is a particularly good film.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

An accidental hero

An accidental hero

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

Northwest Frontier (UK, 1959)

Recalcitrant female will be brought to heel

Recalcitrant female will be brought to heel

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this attempt by Rank to break into the American market (known there as Flame Over India), although the action sequences are relatively tame there is some crackling dialogue, particular from Lauren Bacall (above). Frank Nugent, who wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, is one of the writers and this ‘India in the days of Empire’ set film can certainly be considered a western; the plot’s not a million miles away from that of Stagecoach (1939). Captain Scott (Kenneth More) has to bring a Maharajah prince to safety of face the wrath of Moslems (the term used in the film).

Although, unsurprisingly, the film validates the civilising power of the British Empire, post-Suez Britain knew its place, even if it wouldn’t admit, which might be why the journalist (Herbert Lom) is given many anti-Empire lines. From a 21st century perspective these arguments seem eminently sensible, and no doubt where present as an anti-imperialist discourse at the time the film was made; however, the journalist turns out to be a murderous Moslem thus the film discredits his views.

More’s Scott is of the entirely unflappable variety that is more laughable than admirable now. Indeed, to an extent, the film mocks him, and the British. Bacall’s character notes that the British don’t do anything until they have a cup of tea and by then it’s too late. Bacall, and such lines, no doubt, was part of the film’s intended appeal to the American market; I wonder how the British understood the sentiment at the time. Bacall also speaks her mind: she apologises for doing so but says ‘That’s what I think it’s for.’ Another way the British are (slightly) criticised is through the reference, in the introductory voice over, albeit indirectly, to the fact that Partition was responsible for causing violence. An arms dealer, also on the ‘stagecoach’ (actually a train), comes in for much criticism and is last seen being asked, by an army general, for his new weapons.

Whilst there’s lots of ‘gung ho’ ‘boy’s own’ stuff, room is given for the aftermath of a massacre: there are consequences to the adventure. The British film industry can no longer afford to make such action pictures, apart from Bond; definitely a case of things were different in the old days.

Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, USSR, 1959)

Living on the edge

Living on the edge

Grigoriy Chukhray’s (he co-wrote and directed) war film was made during the Russian Thaw, the Khrushchev years before Brezhnev re-froze culture, and was remarkable for the fact that it showed that World War II hadn’t been personally won by Stalin. Instead, Chukhray focused on ordinary people’s stories as a young man, played by Vladimir Ivashov, tries to get home, on a couple days leave, to fix his mum’s roof. The Private is an accidental hero, he destroyed two tanks when in a desperate situation, hence he is given a few days to go home. After the opening sequence there’s little fighting in the film; it’s more a picaresque narrative where he, warm heartedly, encounters soldiers and civilians. Central to the narrative is his meeting with Shura (Zhanna Prokhorenko) and the pair fall for each other.

So far so sentimental and I was afraid it might be too saccharine for my tastes as everybody, at the start, seems to be good. However, Chukhray, a veteran of Stalingrad, isn’t interested in painting a socialist realist scene (where things are as they should be rather than how they are) and we encounter the less admirable traits of humanity. The Private, though, retains his goodness and Ivashov’s performance shines with convincing naiveté. His relationship with Shura is beautifully developed and the moment, when they part, is brilliantly edited with her face superimposed on the passing landscape and his thoughts given to us in the voice over. This isn’t a spoiler, we learn that the young man is doomed from the start.

Chukhray, despite the Thaw, struggled to get the film made because, his critics on the artistic committee that had to pass the script, argued it was too frivolous a way to represent that giant sacrifices people made to win the war. However, as the Cannes Special jury recognised in 1959, it’s its humanism that makes it a great war film. It is noticeable, however, that all the authority figures are benevolent; an unlikely fact so probably a compromise that Chukhray had to make to ensure the film got made. This isn’t a Soviet issue, Hollywood films rarely question authority either in a meaningful way.