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Film Preview: Dunkirk – BFI Southbank

Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

The miracle of Dunkirk is one of Britain’s most memorable war stories, and is one that combines all the key characteristics that ensure its place in history; it’s a display of ordinary heroism and stoic endurance, the triumph of the survival instinct, the combination of different groups working together, of individual and collective bravery, and most importantly, it is the story of victory against overwhelming odds – with ‘victory’ meaning the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of men cornered by the advancing German army. It is this more than anything else that inflames the popular imagination.

The way Britain records and memorialises its military history is almost unique, not in outright wins and numbers of enemy forces crushed, but in specific acts of bravery against apparently insurmountable obstacles. From the precision of Henry V’s paltry archers against a French army reportedly 4-6 times the size of the English at Agincourt, to the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the defence of Rourke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War and the Battle of Britain, whatever the outcome, the courage of men fighting for King and Country is celebrated and revered. And it’s no coincidence that major war films have been made of each these incidents.

It is somewhat surprising then that the events of Dunkirk have rarely troubled filmmakers in the 77 years since a combined force of Royal Navy, RAF and “little boats” ensured Britain’s soldiers got home from the beaches of Northern France. In 1958 Leslie Norman produced a respected movie of the same name for which he is still best remembered, while the one-shot beach scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement remains one of the most technically impressive and cinematic depictions of war to date, but it was just one scene.

Dunkirk has, perhaps, been overshadowed by other later events in World War Two that capture another idea of heroism – D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Japanese Prisoner of War Camps and the African campaign – which have given filmmakers a more straight-forwardly heroic model and clear victory set-up to warm the nation in the years immediately after the conflict ended. Dunkirk may be a popular landmark but a retreat, even a noble one, is not necessarily the basis for a great film. That is until Christopher Nolan decided to direct it.

At this point it’s best to warn you that what follows will assume you know the history and the outcome of this story, but won’t reveal what happens to individual characters. Nolan’s approach is in many ways atypical of war films, and during a brief introduction at the BFI Southbank screening (having come directly from the premiere), Nolan explained that he wanted to create a semi-immersive experience that felt more like a thriller than a gung-ho tale of derring-do, a template that traditional war films tend to follow. If you imagine that most people seeing this film will know the outcome then the only way to create tension is to ask the audience to invest in the individual fates of a set of characters, and make the action as realistic as possible to create and prolong the suspense, which is something Nolan does masterfully.

Unusually, there is relatively little exposition at the start, the film begins with a one of the protagonists the aptly-named soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escaping snipers on the streets of Dunkirk where he emerges onto a beach full of men in lines waiting for the Navy to come for them. From this point, Nolan’s film is a full-on experience as tensions escalate, the clock ticks as the German Army approaches and four core narratives overlap. In the 105-minute run time, at least 95-minutes of this are unmissably tense so try not to take any breaks because you will miss something.

As we’ve seen from his previous work, Nolan is so accomplished at managing the multinarrative perspective, especially in Inception where the characters were situated in several layers of dream state, and he utilises this approach to considerable effect in Dunkirk. First, we follow Tommy who spends the film trying to jump the queue of men waiting for rescue, forced into short-term alliances with those prepared to push others aside to guarantee their own survival, including a role for Harry Styles that led to much conjecture. This perspective on muddied heroism is really fascinating, and while the audience is repelled by the greed of the men he meets, at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the desperation and fear that drove them to it.

The second strand is on “the mole”, a stretch of pier or jetty that extended far enough into the English Channel that the Navy’s ships could dock one at a time to take men home. Here we meet Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who represent the wider war strategy, trying to save the men, but well aware that a harder war is on its way if Germany attempts invasion for which their ships must be protected.

Flying above them is a single RAF formation with three spitfires led by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his fighter ace colleague Collins (Jack Lowden) who must keep the Luftwaffe from bombing the ships and men on the beach, engaging in dogfights and ensuring they don’t run out of fuel before they too can get home. Finally, we follow Mark Rylance’s “little boat” sent to help with the evacuation but picking up a stray soldier en route (Cillian Murphy) who survived an earlier sinking, but is so shell-shocked he tries to prevent them heading to Dunkirk.

Nolan’s approach feels more like real conflict than almost any war film you’ve ever seen, not just in the technical brilliance of the effects, but in the way the story is managed to show both the unremitting pace of combat, and importantly how the conduct of war is essentially a large system of interconnected elements, the removal of any one part of which would entirely change what happens to the rest of it. Aspects of these four stories do overlap in various ways as entirely separate characters come together momentarily, but what comes across most clearly is the sense that these men were all an important part of the same event, each contributing to the success of the rescue from different angles and with different outcomes.

The technical approach to this film is one its most impressive aspects, and with very little dialogue, it is the action that is the focus. Using real 35mm film was important Nolan explained for creating the right effect. Some of the most startling moments are in the aerial shots, with an Imax camera strapped to various parts of the substitute Spitfire, the actors were taken into the air to film Nolan explained, rather than compromise with imperfect green screening. The result is astounding, giving a kind of first-person perspective across the film that means the audience feels as though they’re sitting right next to Tom Hardy as he spirals through the clouds in pursuit of the dangerous enemy machines, standing should-to-shoulder with Kenneth Branagh on the pier or cowering during a snipper attack with Fionn Whitehead.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that Sam Mendes conducted rather than directed The Ferryman, and Nolan achieves the same effect here controlling the various elements, allowing them their moment but creating a sense of harmony across the film. It is compelling stuff right from the start, and even when you finally realise Nolan is playing with the timeline as well as the perspectives, it’s done in such an understated way that you’re instantly drawn back into the action. This is so redolent of the way men describe real warfare, with no time to linger on what happened and what it means, but having to just carry on. And Nolan’s approach to death and destruction is exactly the same, it happens but during the main thrust of the film it’s portrayal it unsentimental and unfussy, part of what’s happening but so much else is occurring simultaneously that, as with real warfare, there is only time to reflect much later when it’s all over.

And much of this down to Nolan’s faith in his cast, who, with very little dialogue, must carry much of the impact of events merely in expression. Kenneth Branagh is actually sensational as the weary naval officer carrying the weight of the war on his shoulders, feeling every bit of his powerlessness. Yet the moment the little boats appear, Nolan focuses entirely on Branagh’s face as the joy, pride and incalculable relief pass across it. When the tears fill his eyes, don’t be surprised if they also fill yours.

For much of the film Tom Hardy has only experienced determination in his eyes to rely on while his face is covered by the mask of a fighter pilot but he still manages to convey the fear, concern, relief and almost total self-reliance that are the mark of aerial warfare. Mark Rylance meanwhile as civilian boatman Mr Dawson does that humble determined thing he does so well while nursing his own private heartache, and Cillian Murphy is excellent as a broken soldier who brings the tragedy of war to Dawson’s boat, unable to contain his trauma – arguably the consequences of this subplot is one of the few missteps in the film but doesn’t detract from Murphy’s performance.   

There are also a host of rising stars who add to this solid work from more established actors. First Fionn Whitehead as Tommy is the audience’s way into the film. With less dialogue than some of the supporting cast, Whitehead carries most of the soldier-journey conveying both the youth of the men fighting with the jaded weariness of the experienced fighter, seeing death and barely responding to it.

Harry Styles doesn’t disgrace himself or pull focus as a soldier prepared to clamber over anyone to be first in line for rescue, and the film frequently plays with the hero-villain divide, letting individual actions repel you while still appreciating the wider fighting hell they’ve gone through – it’s not all plucky good natured-heroism but something much more complex and human. There’s also excellent work from Jack Lowden as Tom Hardy’s fellow fighter pilot who finds himself frustratedly watching the action from another story while dealing with accusations of abandonment from the army.

The much-anticipated Dunkirk absolutely lives up to the hype and is a film that subverts the established war-movie model and makes it a thrilling but unsentimental experience until the very end, where it’s gets a little cheesy for 5 minutes. But Nolan’s skill is in reminding us that Dunkirk may have been a ‘victory of survival’ but it was far from the end of the war, and in a way, the fate of all the characters is a reminder that there was so much more to do. Dunkirk is an extraordinary war film that aptly celebrates an extraordinary moment in British military history where systematised war and the courage of fighting men met with the bravery of civilian little boats – there is certainly some kind of miracle in that.

Dunkirk is on general release from Friday 21 July in cinemas nationwide. For more information on BFI previews, visit their website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies – Imperial War Museum

Real to Reel - A Century of War Movies - IWM

The Imperial War Museum has a real treat for film fans, a new exhibition looking at the creation and influence of war films that brings together a huge number of props, costumes, videos and documents from the last hundred years of movie-making.  An often controversial subject, movies claiming to depict real-life events can polarise opinion frustrating historians and veterans, while patronising audiences. Yet some of the greatest films ever made were war movies, many with devoted cult followings, so from Casablanca to Black Hawk Down, Das Boot to Eye in the Sky film has often reflected the nature of modern warfare.

The parameters for this rather brilliant exhibition become clear as you go along and it’s quite strict about selecting films based only on wars that have actually occurred in the last hundred years, as well as the films – both real and fictional – made in this time. So if you’re hoping to see medieval depictions like Braveheart or the recent Macbeth, or gain insight into the big battles of the British Empire such as The Charge of the Light Brigade or Zulu then this is not the show for you. Real to Reel instead fits entirely with the museums remit to represent the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Pushing the history aside, there’s plenty for film fans; if you want to see Mark Rylance’s 2016 BAFTA mask for Bridge of Spies, David Niven’s RAF flying jacket from A Matter of Life and Death, Marlene Dietrich’s ‘entertaining the troops’ dress, James McAvoy’s Atonement army uniform, an original chair from Rick’s bar in Casablanca or Clarke Gable’s trench-coat then this show has it all and more. Taking a largely chronological approach we walk through the World Wars first, grouping together examples of films made about them at any time since. Initially the layout is like a store room piled high with boxes, reels and packages – reminiscent actually of the layout of the Barbican’s James Bond exhibition a few years’ back – a stage set in a way to showcase the individual items which include the costumes mentioned above, digital screens showing excerpts from the films, screenplays, stills, director’s letters and corresponding testimony from the IWM archives for the periods examined.

Given the recent splurge of commemoration activity, naturally we start with The Battle of the Somme a landmark piece of early film-making that gave people at home a chance to see what the Western Front looked like for the first time. Although parts of it were staged, it does show wounded and dying men, the dangerous environment full of shells, craters and fear, and, from a distance, men genuinely engaged in combat. It sets the scene for the rest of the programme as we learn about the purpose of war films both as patriotic drivers made during actual conflicts to rally morale, as well as reflections on the way in which particular conflicts have shaped British and American consciousness. The fully fictional accounts soon follow, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory with original set drawings from Bond designer Ken Adams, to Lawrence of Arabia, as well as costumes and a flag from the recent Warhorse movie, the First World War has been a popular focus for films throughout the last 100 years.

Understandably, however, it is the Second World War that takes up the most room here and seems to have been the greatest inspiration for film-makers. There are several reasons for this, key among them is the idea that by 1939, film had become an important medium for propaganda and morale, so while the art was in its infancy during the Great War, many movies were made in both the UK and America to promote the cause. In addition, of course, this war had a greater effect on the USA than its predecessor, so naturally Hollywood both then and since has spent considerable resource attempting to comprehend and honour it.

We learn how several major stars joined-up to fight while continuing to make films and hold concerts, showcasing the costumes mentioned above for Niven, Gable and Dietrich along with their stories including how Dietrich gave up her citizenship rather than perform for the Nazi cause. Nearby on a giant cinema screen are some interpretations of the 1944 D-Day landings with the combat sections of several films contrasted to show us how differently the war has been interpreted in different decades. Saving Private Ryan is one of those included and in a case nearby you can see Tom Hanks’s costume from the film along with memorabilia from comparable D-Day movies.

From here on the chronological framework for the exhibition fluctuates somewhat because next up is an interpretation of the Dunkirk retreat from 1940 using Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement which includes probably one of the best tracking shots ever seen in a combat movie as we follow the hero Robbie (played by James McAvoy) and his friends along the beach. The shoreline is packed with men awaiting rescue, some enjoying the faded glory of the fairground rides, some slumped exhaustedly on the ground, and the shot, shown here in full, is compelling, eye-opening and strangely beautiful. Nearby, is McAvoy’s army uniform worn in these scenes along with a brilliant short video interview with Wright and his designer Sarah Greenwood discussing how they found the location, dressed it and prepared for the sequence. In a microcosm, this small section is why this exhibition is so successful, because it shows you the piece of film, tells you how it was made with passionate care and attention to detail so notable of modern filmmakers, and offers you a bone fide bit of Hollywood glamour with a costume worn by a movie star.

There are some final display cases on character which feel a little under prepared in comparison but cover some of the Vietnam films and Where Eagles Dare, as well as an excellent ultra-modern video with trailers and interviews for recent hits including Zero Dark Thirty and Eye in the Sky. It ends where it began with a warning that war movies are often highly controversial and glamorised versions of history that can be unreliable. But the minute the marketing machine goes into production the cultural impact of these films is inescapable. Walking around the final anteroom that contains posters, memorabilia and replicas it’s hard to disagree. The soundtrack to this section is the music from classic movies like The Great Escape and Casablanca which are instantly recognisable and firmly embedded in a wider idea of the periods they represent.

War movies, then, are a dangerous thing and for many will be the only history they will ever see. And while such fictions have no claim to absolute truth (the catch-all term ‘based-on’ helps with this), artistic licence can lead to considerable controversy – particularly when American films completely expunge other Allied forces from their own history. From Real to Reel is probably the Imperial War Museum’s most successful exhibition, in terms of logic, argument and content, since their Ian Fleming show in 2008. It is brilliantly executed with a persuasive argument that makes you think more deeply about the issues it raises, while enjoying a rare sweep of exciting artefacts. While plenty of films are left out what this show contains will delight military historians and film fans alike.

From Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January. Entrance is £10 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 


Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

Shakespeare in Ten Acts - British Library

You may have noticed that it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and over the last few weeks there has been a festival of activities across the country and on television, from the Globe’s lovely but technically challenged Complete Walk showing scenes from every play with some of our finest actors, to the somewhat less successful RSC Shakespeare Live variety show beamed from Stratford to your living rooms and cinemas. With a new series of The Hollow Crown in mid-flow as well, interest in Shakespeare and how his work is performed is riding high. The British Library’s new exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at the history of the plays and the ways in which they’ve been performed in the last four centuries, considering how changing theatrical fashions and political contexts have shaped the staging of Shakespeare’s of major works.

This exhibition purports to tell the story of Shakespeare in performance, focusing on ten key moments from the first Hamlet in around 1600 to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the early twenty-first century. But it doesn’t do this in quite the way you expect and often becomes side-tracked by the wider context of the landmark eras it chooses. While these digressions are often interesting and supported by a wealth of valuable original material largely from the Library’s own collection, it makes for a less focused tour of Shakespearean performances than anticipated. Largely it seems this is driven by the material the BL could obtain rather than the argument the curators are trying to make that Shakespeare ‘holds up a mirror to the era in which it was performed’.

Understandably, this is a very bookish exhibition and you can expect to see a number of important tomes, not least a speech for a play about Thomas Moore in Shakespeare’s own hand which was recently read by Sir Ian McKellen for Shakespeare Live and at a BFI talk about Shakespeare on Screen. Here too is the important first folio as well as personal items like Shakespeare’s mortgage deed with accompanying seals. The exhibition then opens with the first Hamlet which we learn was written with specific actors in mind, most particularly for Richard Burbage who was the first to play what is arguably the most sought after role in all the plays.  It has since come to represent a high watermark in a young actor’s career, a significant hurdle for those wishing to be known as a great classical performer.

This section on Hamlet is one of the best, digitally comparing the differences between the versions of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and giving wider context about the establishment and workings of Shakespeare’s theatre. The notion that he was specifically writing for individuals among the Lord Chamberlaine’s Men is a valuable one and brings the process of creation, performance and redrafting to life in a way that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the exhibition. The section on the first black actor to play Othello also feels particularly well thought through with portraits of Ira Aldridge from the 1820s alongside playbills advertising his performances. Although some of these were criticised Aldridge had a long career on the stage and in the course of more than 40 years played several roles, including somewhat surprisingly using white make-up to play other leading parts including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. The BL then diversifies this section to include photos of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and modern black actors in performance including David Oyelowo in tribute to the modern practice of colour-blind casting.

Some elements of this exhibition feel like padding rather than integral to the argument and occasionally they try to cover too much material. One milestone was the first female performance in 1660 when an unknown actress was allowed to take to the stage as Desdemona, which prompts a brief history of people playing Shakespeare’s heroines since, including Vivien Leigh’s costume for Lady Macbeth and details of Ned Kynaston who had a career playing a woman onstage, but what it doesn’t do so well is focus on the mechanics of that original performance, or any of the ones it later shows. Time and again in this exhibition the focus seems to be on examining a play as a piece of English Literature rather than as a drama performance, so what you really want here is more focus on that original flood of actresses onto the stage and the practicalities of putting on a play in Restoration England. Even more important, given the overall purpose of this exhibition, is how it changed perceptions of Shakespeare’s work and what role women had to play in perpetuating it.

Some of the weaker sections don’t always feel like landmark moments as the BL implies, and while there is interesting material in the ‘Wider World’ section as Shakespeare’s plays are performed abroad for the first time, not least onboard an East India Company ship off Sierra Leon – an early incarnation of the theatre ships of the First World War navy – this section is an odd assortment of stuff including a Shakespeare in Love poster and some international editions of Shakespeare plays. Similarly the sections on a forged play doing the rounds in 1796 and the reintroduction of the tragic ending to King Lear in 1838 feel more like footnotes than major turning points in our understanding of Shakespeare’s popularity. Nice stories perhaps but not worthy of entire sections devoted to them, or if they are, the BL is not making a convincing case.

It’s not until you get into the twentieth century that we get a greater focus on physical performance with Peter Brook’s influential 1970s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a whole room made up to look like the white box that Brook used as his stage, and featuring props and costumes – if only more of it were like this. Also interesting is the section on Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance’s all male production at the Globe in 2002 which leaps right back to the way Shakespeare was originally performed, supported here by costumes and scenes from the production. The Globe appears a few times in this exhibition actually, suggesting a partnership that prevents mention of any other modern purveyors of Shakespeare plays – the RSC and National Theatre for example remain entirely unmentioned, though arguably the formation of the RSC is a landmark in itself.

It concludes, rather oddly, with emphasis on film and digital media using a production of Hamlet by The Wooster Group in 2013 – something I confess I’d not heard of – which though innovative seems to end this show with a whimper. There are scenes from twentieth-century films including early silent movies, right through to Branagh’s 1996 Henry V and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Seems a shame not to have had the final section consider the modernisation of Shakespeare on film, its limitations and scope for interpretation as a way to bring new audiences and new actors to the fore – especially as there are box office riots as people clamour for tickets to see a favourite celebrity actor take on a major role such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet or Tennant’s Richard II, meaning the NT Live business model has expanded beyond the National Theatre linking up with competitors to broadcast any major performance far and wide. Again, I suspect this a lack of material but this an important marker for the future of Shakespeare in performance and one that would have provided a fitting end to this exhibition.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts has a lot of interesting material but the central argument and focus is not always clear enough. As a chance to see a number of important documents and to learn a bit more about the documentary history of selected performances this is fine, but you don’t leave feeling as though you have an entirely new slant on Shakespeare’s plays or enthused by the endless interpretation of his works – which you really should. It’s academic, broad in topic and respects the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, but in his BFI talk recently Sir Ian McKellen argued that to get a new audience enthused about Shakespeare they need to see it, so what this really needs is more performance.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library until 6 September. Tickets are £12 for adults (without Gift Aid) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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