August 12th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The lessons for euthanasia are there for the learning

EDITORIAL Shorten's agenda will cripple Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED Candidates must polish their paperwork skills

FOREIGN AFFAIRS EU v Poland: disquiet on the eastern front

EUTHANASIA How safe will Victoria's 'locked tin' be?

ASIA-PACIFIC AFFAIRS Pacific likely to focus for Taiwan's Iron Lady

PHILOSOPHY Aristotle and the virtues as products of reason

FEDERAL POLITICS Backbench marriage push angers Coalition colleagues

MUSIC Time and times: Melody is moments gathered for an instant

CINEMA Dunkirk: When survival is victory

BOOK REVIEW Just socialism by another name?

BOOK REVIEW The rightness of goading the left


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Dunkirk: When survival is victory

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, August 12, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an extraordinary film. It is an exercise in pure cinema, “visual poetry”, as the writer-director puts it, a movie in which the characters, and even in some ways the plot, are secondary to the cinematic experience itself. And what a cinematic experience it is – a complete immersion in three interlocking narratives with their own time frames within the wider narrative of the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk early in World War II.

It is 1940, and the Germans have conquered much of Europe. The Allied forces have been pushed back to the seaside city of Dunkirk in northern France, where they await rescue. The tanks have stopped and the Luftwaffe has been sent in to pick off the men like “fish in a barrel”. The only way to get to the waiting ships is by “The Mole”, a long, narrow pier that is the perfect target for the bombers, as are the men themselves, lined up in perfect, disciplined English fashion along the shore.

The narrative of The Mole, taking place over one week, comprises the first of the interlocking narratives. Its primary subject is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier who just wants get home, by any means possible. Its secondary subject is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the naval officer overseeing the evacuation, and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who is in command of the land forces.

The second narrative – “The Sea” – takes place over one day and concerns the famed “Little Ships of Dunkirk”, the civilian ships and small vessels requisitioned by the Navy to aid in the evacuation. The Little Ships are able to get in closer to the shore, thus allowing the men to be taken directly from the beach, either to waiting, larger ships or straight back to Britain. Its primary subject is one of the Little Ships – the pleasure yacht, The Moonstone. The Moonstone is captained by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) with the assistance of his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan).

The third narrative – “The Air” – takes place over one hour and concerns the efforts of a sortie of Spitfires, piloted by Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) to provide support to the evacuation by taking on the Luftwaffe.

The three narratives are intercut together, with each narrative depicting the events as they occur within that narrative. This allows the audience to get a different perspective on each specific incident, thus broadening their overall understanding of the movie and adding to the awareness of the impact upon the different characters. While it may seem confusing at first, it ultimately makes for a deeper and more nuanced experience.

The film has been criticised for what has been left out. And much has been left out – like Churchill, or the efforts back home. But this is all the deliberate result of an intentionally narrow focus, a focus that gives us an insight into only a few aspects of the struggle to survive.

There are small historical inaccuracies throughout the film, but Nolan’s intention was to tell fictional stories about the event, and to be as cinematically accurate as possible within the framework. While there are errors, it is notable that Dunkirk veterans who saw the film said how realistic it was for them.

Dunkirk is the most artistically ambitious mainstream film since Terrence Malick’s stunning, but cryptic, The Tree of Life. Nolan is following Stanley Kubrick in making a commercial movie, but making it in such a way that it is an exercise in cinema itself, a work of art that could not exist in another medium.

These visuals emphasise the desperation and fear while also capturing some of the grandeur and ultimate triumph that comes with the theme of survival as victory. This is reinforced by Hans Zimmer’s score with its constantly ticking clock, ever-rising Shepard tone and the understated use of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

This use of Elgar underscores the other idea at the heart of Dunkirk – that of patriotism, of England as home and home coming to rescue the homeless, of the Common Man coming to the aid of other Common Men. The film is shot through with heroism, but the heroism of survival, of living to fight another day for the safety and security of one’s neighbours.

Dunkirk is a magnificent and virtuosic piece of moviemaking, a worthy work of art celebrating the Common Man and the art of cinema itself. It is a masterpiece.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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