War Poet

I am not a fan of war movies. I can probably count the number I have seen on the fingers of my hands: Gallipoli, Zulu (does that even count?) er.. I am running out already. War is a pretty grim topic and I am a vegetarian so it was with reluctance that I agreed to go and see Dunkirk with my brother and father the other day.

On the plus side, we went to a VMAX screening (which is one WA cinema chain’s brand of alleged IMAX). I say alleged because my brother has been to two of these now (Titan and VMAX) and claims that the common or garden cinema screens in Thailand are more impressive that the one we boast as Mega. It appears it is just the prices are really bigger, then – although the seats were wider, leather and more comfortable so that was nice.

I had seen the trailers so I knew that I was in for a tense ride. My plan was to grit my teeth and get through it. A British response to a British moment in history. Like many, I have been a fan of Chris Nolan films since I first saw Memento and the only one so far that has left me cold was Interstellar, although to be fair I have not got further than 20 mins into it yet.

Dunkirk was stunning. It was a story designed to be told as a film and as a result was well worth the cash outlay to see it in the cinema, although I will be getting the DVD as soon as it is released. The story is simply told from three different angles and three different timelines: the story of the men on the beach as we follow one young soldier trapped for a week with the 400 000 others on the edge of the water, the story of those civilians who took to the water for a day in their tiny crafts, shallow enough to reach the shore and pick up the men the Navy vessels could not and the one-hour story of the airmen who were the only defence for the soldiers as the Messerschmidts flew overhead and picked them off, ‘like fish in a barrel.’

It is a story of resilience and courage, of endurance and survival. It is a story of unrelenting pressure and the will to survive and it is a study of man and machine. The machines that we build to destroy and the machines that we board to survive. The machines that we engineer and rely on and those that occasionally fail. The machines that are bigger than us and can ultimately, impassively lead us to our doom as we become trapped within them.

 It is a story about the machinery of war and its effects on the individuals who are part of that moment in history.

There is not a lot of blood and gore – that is not the point. The focus of the story is demonstrated early on as leaflets rain down in a deserted street in France. A young soldier plucks one from the air and reads it. It is a map drawn by the Germans to show the allies that they are surrounded and sure of defeat. It is about how it feels to be utterly stranded so close to home.

The score is outstanding, with the promise and final release of Elgar’s Nimrod. Mark Rylance gives a stand-out performance as one of the many skippers who answered the call and sailed their pleasure boats into the war zone to rescue the troops  – the simplicity of his style and speech gradually revealing a layered character as he makes the crossing. 

If I had one tiny grumble it was that once again I lost bits of dialogue as the sound design sacrificed them to oblivion, but the dialogue is scare in the film anyway. It is the pictures and the sound that tell the story and the face of Kenneth Branagh as he looks to the horizon for a rescue that may never come.

Even if you are ot a fan of war movies, go and see this film, it is the closest you will get to seeing poetry on screen this year.

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