I have just seen the movie Dunkirk, which I watched at the small cinema theatre at Shepperton Studios.
The film was very good. The four main film-making techniques that sprang to my attention in the production:
The first was the use of a non-linear timeline for the story which followed the action this was explained with use of some text that referred to the action covering a soldier as Dunkirk one week and of a three Spitfire pilots as Dunkirk one hour. The narrative then intertwined the two timelines together merging them into the same moment in time at a point with a minesweeper being attacked by a Dornier bomber. This was a very clever method of pulling events that in real time occurred over a period of days and hours into one hour thirty minutes of screen-time. I felt that the screenplay were written that suggested several screenplays had been or could have been combined together. The narrative of the Spitfire pilots made up one short-film, the narrative of the cabin-boat crew another and the narrative of the soldier the third. These three narratives could have stood up alone as short-films and perhaps a forth very short film for a narrative covering the story of the senior officers on ‘The Mole’.
The second technique I noticed was the minimal use of dialogue, dialogue was used but the screenplay had clearly limited the dialogue for only where and when necessary to keep the story moving forward.
The third technique was the use of sound, added to the background we could hear a non-diegetic track of a ticking watch to imply time running out for the BEF trapped on the beaches and most noticeably the sound of this ticking appears to gradually increase in speed to dramatically stop in a scene towards the end when the soldiers are laying exhausted on a train back in England. This ticking was a clever motif that added drama and tension to the story. Sound was also used with great effect to shock the audience with the sudden sharp sounds of gunfire and explosions to put the audience into the film. With the sinking of a ship we experience all the sounds of the ship sinking, it’s engine throbbing, explosions, screams, rushing water and distortion of sound for underwater and in confines spaces.
The forth was film language. A good example of this is a shot of the Dunkirk beach early in the film, we see soldiers in lines wading out to sea and in the foreground white flag poles cut the through the picture like prison bars implying the plight of trapped men. As already mentioned the non-diegetic sound of the ticking watch implying a count-down, time against them / time running out. The composition was also used for film language and a great example is a shot of soldiers on ‘The Mole’. The camera has been elevated to look down to see all the soldiers crowding this long narrow pier; all are looking out to sea and we see only the top of there green helmets, except one soldier in the foreground, we can see his face as he looks up towards something beyond the camera. He is the first the hear the bombers approaching and we see his fear.
The above is what I mentally took note of while watching the film and reflecting on it after returning home and I am sure there is much more I could point out if I have the luxury of re-watching the movie again and again for much closer analysis.
The film was very well done, it lacked and sentimentality that we might have expected from this story of British soldiers fighting against the odds or the typical gung-hoe heroism we often get. The theme was simple it was about survival, of lost and confused men trying to get home. I felt the film-makers wanted to tell a story that came as close to how it really happened and how the people really were like under those extraordinary circumstances as they possibly could and I think they achieved just that. Fine performances from all the actors and from (as I understand) the pop-star who played the lost young Tommy who was just trying to stay alive and get home.
Since first writing this blog, I have had more time to reflect on the film and it occurred to me that there was an underlying theme that British audiences could connect to which is currently very topical for Great Britain and that is BREXIT. It occurred to me that in the film we do not see French soldiers amongst the men on the Beaches, except one who we only learn is French later in the story as he has swapped his uniform with a dead British soldier. Was this intentional? Was the decision to make this film based on current political events? Is this just my imagination based on the idea that we just see what we want to see? What ever the answers really are it is worth pointing out that the shooting of this movie began, no doubt, shortly after the UK voted to leave the EU; and would have been in the late planning and pre-production stages during the debates and campaigns. Why no French soldiers? I happen to know that we did rescue a large number who made up the ranks of DeGaulle‘s Free-French army. Perhaps the film-makers felt it was too sensitive a subject to show French people wanting to escape from Europe along with the British or perhaps consciously or unconsciously they were comparing our present political relations with Europe with those events of 1940. Perhaps, the film-makers have got the comparisons uncannily right. Our current departure from Europe lacks plan and co-ordination, has taken our leaders by surprise appears quixotic and messy. Maybe one day BREXIT will be regarded as Britains peacetime 21st century Dunkirk or worse still Dieppe.