Dunkirk is 106 minutes long and consists of approx. 103 minutes of drowning, in such profusion and at so many camera angles that it makes Titanic look like Lawrence of Arabia. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, as head civilian and military heroes respectively, leave some impressive pauses, through which Spitfires could be and indeed are flown. Branagh’s general is Henry V in middle age, eyes set to Agincourt, unsubtlety unenhanced by Nolan’s Churchill-by-numbers script. At one point it looks like a plane might land on Branagh’s head, but it doesn’t. I might have felt more charitable if I hadn’t just seen his trailer for Poirot.
As Brown-Haired Boy Soldier No. 3, Harry Styles is far more competent than I’d been led to expect: truly, he is the Lillie Langtry of our time. The further cast includes one black soldier, shoved to the front of a single crowd scene as in the brochures of a left-wing private school, before disappearing forever (as in the brochures of same). A nurse has one or two lines about making the men a cup of tea before she gets blown up, which is historically accurate but also typical Christopher Nolan. I caught about 15% of the Spitfire pilots’ dialogue, but thanks to the Enigma-thumping score, I wept copiously at every appropriate moment. What with that and the UEFA Women’s Cup, my jingoistic shallows are more visible than ever.
The film’s dedication, given at the end since the beginning is mainly exposition that sets up the telescopic time-plot – is to all those whose lives were ‘impacted’ by events at Dunkirk. I suspect that some of the generation who remember Dunkirk would be horrified by the verb, not least the Oxford tutor who once censured me for using ‘prioritise’ with the comment ‘You are not writing for the Guardian’. And of course nor is Nolan, not yet.
A friend of mine was cast in Dunkirk, but they cut his scene, so by rights I should pan the thing entirely. However, he’s still in the credits (at which I gladly whooped and applauded), and the cinematography is stunning, so if I went in for stars, Dunkirk would probably get three out of five. However, I should note that since I am in re. David Suchet what Jane Austen was to English history (i.e. partial, prejudiced, and absurd), Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot is already scheduled for minus ten.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.