Dunkirk – a war film on a different scale

Dunkirk_Film_posterI don’t often write film reviews on here – not least because I don’t actually go to the cinema very often, and when I do I am not sure that anyone would be interested in what I think of it. However, having written Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health and written articles and given talks on the aftermath of war, I was actually asked for my thoughts (always a boost to the old ego).

I have written at length about how troops were (or rather were not) supported to deal with the trauma they had experienced, and emphasised that even into the 21st century we are regularly failing those experiencing combat stress. I have read many personal accounts, been told stories of distant fathers and grandfathers who were simply unable to express their feelings and who perhaps turned to drink, or on their families.

The beach at DunkirkBut it wasn’t really until I sat in the cinema last night and watched Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk that I realised how impossible it is for anyone who hasn’t lived through war to appreciate what those young men (and women) went through, again, in WW2. Don’t misunderstand me – it is the very best war film I have ever seen and succeeds on almost every cinematic level – but even this immersive experience is always tempered by the knowledge (which the actors, when interviewed have been quick to highlight) that the men we see on the screen would always hear ‘cut’ and know they were safe. Those on the beaches of Dunkirk  – within 25 miles of home – were not so lucky.

Nolan’s use of time is wonderful, but you must pay attention, as you are watching the story unfold from different perspectives over interlocking periods and I know I got tripped up a couple of times. All the most obvious rules of cinema are broken here – we get no back story, we find out nothing about the characters, many of whom are anonymous, and the politics of the situation are totally ignored. We don’t see a German until right at the very end, and then for just a few seconds.

The whole cast brings an honesty (not all actions are ‘heroic’ in the usual sense) and intimacy to the film that at once makes it true on a wholly personal level, whilst at the same time portraying the universality of the horror. It is a terrific ensemble piece.

DUNKIRK-7-1200x800‘Star’ actors have little dialogue (in fact dialogue is at a minimum throughout) and it is genuinely the young men in the front line who are at the heart of the story, although Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are wonderfully understated in pivotal roles. Much of a to-do has been made of Harry Styles‘s acting debut and he does well, and his presence is not at the expense of the other young lead, Ffion Whitehead, who is remarkable. Jack Lowden, as one of the two pilots struggling to support the vulnerable shipping below them, was also good, although it is Tom Hardy as the other pilot, who seems to set the hearts fluttering. When you have had a crush on Ken Branagh for as long as I have (about 30 years now) Hardy will have to do better than be a total hero (no spoilers!)

The soundtrack is an integral part of the action, raising the tension and heartbeat. It brings in a touching and stirring hint of Elgar, particularly at the end and is never intrusive.

DUNKIRK-9-1200x800What I loved most about this film was the authentic nature of the action – no CGI (or little) was used to recreate the horror. Surviving Spitfires were used, as were some of the original small vessels sailing over the channel to evacuate the desperate troops (as Branagh sights the flotilla heading towards the beach a real lump comes to the throat). There is little blood (I am sure there was plenty in reality, but this is no gore fest like Saving Private Ryan, for example) but neither was there a sanitisation of the experience. I literally held my breath in some of the watery sequences…

Cillian Murphy is the actor portraying the ‘shell shocked’ soldier, his odd reactions after being rescued diagnosed by the Mark Rylance character, who had obviously had his own, earlier experiences of war, and who had already been affected by the tragedy of the second conflict. Murphy’s was not a sympathetic character, which I was a little sad about, but it was good to see the issue highlighted as one that hadn’t ended in the trenches of the Great War.

It is a wonderful film, that can only add to our knowledge and appreciation of the role played by so many in the defence of Britain. There was no sense in the film that victory was on the way – in fact, there is some despair and a real sense of failure. But Churchill’s words, used at the end, leave you with a sense that it was an event that brought the country together  – in failure then, there was new hope.

Go and see it as soon as you can, and at the cinema if at all possible. A small screen won’t diminish the brilliance of the film, but on the big screen, you can literally immerse yourself in it.

‘Be excellent to each other….’ a belated Happy New Year from me…


I appreciate I am a bit late with my new year greeting here on No wriggling out of writing. Having lost my blogging mojo a few months ago I have found new ideas for posts hard to come by, especially as I earn a crumb writing for  other blogs too ( most notably The Terrace counselling and complementary therapy clinic blog ‘let’s talk!‘) which, though interesting, can take up valuable blogging energy. However, I wanted to get 2016 off to a good start and felt it important to thank those who have stuck with me in more barren writing times, and those who have bought, read and otherwise supported my book Shell Shocked Britain:The First World war’s legacy for Britain’s mental health. It makes a lot of difference to know people still find something to enjoy when I do actually make the effort. I wish you the very best of times this year, and onwards.

It isn’t easy to believe, when news reports detail a myriad of horrors in the world, that there is any chance of some sort of global ‘spirit’ that binds humanity together. But to remain sane I know I have to inhabit a community that still cries out for peace, equality and goodwill towards our fellow beings, and this period over Christmas helps a great deal. Celebrating with family and friends in Somerset and Suffolk reminded me of what is, ultimately, important for the maintenance of my own (and surely many other people’s ) emotional well  being – spending time with people we love, remembering our shared pasts, looking to the future and enjoying the ‘moment’. It might sound a little twee to some, but I can’t think of a funky way to put it so bear with me.

Over the Christmas holiday we watched ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure‘ – again. It was, and still is, a family favourite; our children loved it and can still quote it at length. It isn’t a great movie – made at the beginning of Keanu Reeves’s career when his slightly vacant acting style actually supported his role as a dipsy late teenage boy  heading backwards in a time machine to collect historical characters to pass a History report – but it is fun, and has bequeathed to us a message that I offer as my hope for 2016……


It isn’t profound, but it is true. Yes we can resolve to eat more healthily, take more exercise and write more and better in the coming months, but we can make those resolutions any time of year, if we are honest. But the sooner we can work to show each other affection and respect, the better and then we can truly let the good times roll…..

Happy New Year!!!




On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….

downloadApologies to John Keats for mangling the title of his poem on King Lear, but it seemed very appropriate. This blog has always covered an eclectic mix of subjects to say the least, breaking basic rules of blogging (know your niche, focus, give readers what they want etc) but one thing I rarely talk about is film. Yet I had ambitions – I took an Arvon Course on screenwriting eight years ago, when Jane Campion had recently stolen my thunder and come up with an idea for a biopic of John Keats that wasn’t about Keats and announced Bright Star. So I was hoping to focus on adapting a short story I had written about my great-uncle (that went on to inspire my book, Shell Shocked Britain) into a short film. On the first evening the course leaders went round the gathered company asking each of us to name our favourite film.

Now this was a challenge to me as I rarely sit down to watch a movie. My husband and I have very different tastes and although I will happily watch a two-hour episode of Inspectors Morse, Lewis or Montalbano, I am not a ‘movie night’ kind of gal.  I often lose patience mid way through a DVD, and trips to the cinema are infrequent. I do love some films –  Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and the aforementioned Bright Star; Love Actually is a favourite at Christmas largely because Emma Thompson is so brilliant in it, and at the same time of year the Muppet Christmas Carol is an annual treat.

Continue reading “On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….”

Contemporising Keats – It isn’t all about the words….

I have a GoogleAlert which regularly sends me links to items that relate (even obliquely it seems) to John Keats and yesterday it included a link, not only to my recent post Blog infidelity, but to the following video that has been put up on YouTube by EzraWelser. It is Steven Brown reading ‘You say you love’, a poem that has proved hard for experts to date, but which is generally thought to be an early attempt by Keats to write love poetry. It wasn’t published until well after his death.

Tempting though it is to relate everything Keats wrote to an incident in his intense relationship with Fanny Brawne, this is thought to have been written well before he met her. It was probably addressed to Isabella Jones, an older woman Keats was involved with in 1817, at least a year before he met Fanny.  Indeed it seems most concerned to describe the physical demonstration of love and perhaps suggests a youthful, slightly petulant response to a lack of commitment from a beloved.

Watching the video below, however, I discovered a new, fresh intensity in the poem which for me was created by the tone of voice in the reader (I don’t actually know who Steven Brown is I am afraid), the background music and the seemingly random images that accompany the poem. It gives the words a very contemporary feel.

Continue reading “Contemporising Keats – It isn’t all about the words….”

Where the costumes are a cast member – Keats & Fanny Brawne as fiction in ‘Bright Star’

In December I wrote a blog post entitled Picturing John Keats –  Image or Imagination? describing how I felt about the representations of Keats in art. I mentioned the 2009 film Bright Star only briefly as but another opportunity for the real Keats to become distorted in our minds (this time by the lovely Ben Whishaw).

However, following a twitter conversation with historian Emma Jolly, who spent an evening watching the film with her son; it occurred to me that the film has a very striking effect in another way. The rules governing what young women should wear in these years of the Regency period (it is set in 1818-1821) seem to drive the film and the costumes become an important member of the cast in a way that is not always so apparent in other period dramas.

This is perhaps because the costume designer Janet Patterson was actually designing for a lead character – the love of Keats’ life, Fanny Brawne – who in the film at least is a student of fashion who makes her own clothes.

It is clear in the film that Fanny’s skill is belittled by the male characters and is not perceived as an art in itself, which it most certainly is if we are to believe she had indeed created the costumes herself, by hand in her bedroom. At just eighteen her talent would have been extraordinary, and some of the early fabric choices are to my untrained eye quite unorthodox for the period, chosen for striking visual effect rather than for authenticity.

Director Jane Campion also makes it clear that as a seamstress Fanny was not perceived by his friends as a sufficiently intelligent a match for Keats, which from surviving correspondence is close to the truth.

Fanny in 1833
Silhouette of Fanny Brawne

As anyone who has read this blog before will know, I love the film and can immerse myself in it as a piece of cinema. I am careful though to keep in my mind the knowledge that this is not John Keats and Fanny Brawne, however beautifully the parts are played. We have little idea of the clothes Fanny wore at eighteen and in the few images we have of her she is not dressed like Ms Cornish. We also have a very one-sided view of the love-affair as only Keats’ letters survive; the contents of some meant that for many years Fanny was vilified as a flighty piece unworthy of his affections, even though she had treasured every note, keeping them secret all her life.

Is  this really another example of how easily we can be influenced by the media? For many Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish will be Keats and Fanny, in the way that Colin Firth has to a new generation become King George VI. My mother didn’t enjoy the film The King’s Speech much at all – she thought Firth was nothing like the ‘real thing’, even though that really wasn’t the point.


Janet Patterson was Oscar nominated for the costume design on Bright Star, and is renowned for the way she works hard to ‘live’ the era she is working to. She also designed for ‘The Piano’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’. I do have to say I love the designs for Keats’ clothes, his coat particularly. My daughter wants one just like it. But where the ‘real’ Keats was described as physically short, but robust and full of energy, Whishaw’s portrayal is frail, pale and very quietly done. John Keats was known to dress, quote, ‘a la Byron’, but the costumes for Whishaw are muted and undeniably down-at-heel. He looks wonderful, but his portrayal is of the sort of ‘Romantic’ Keats we might expect to see on screen, rather than an attempt at truth.

I have read discussions about the costumes, and there is a view that they evolve through the film to tell their own story. Bright and vibrant at the start, as the situation changes, becomes desperate towards the end and eventually ends in tragedy the clothes become paler, less brash, more washed out so that the ‘widow’s weeds’ Fanny dons at the end of the film become all the more striking.


Abbie Cornish was quoted as saying of the outfits designed for her:

“The things I loved the most were the jackets, shoes and hats. They were so authentic it was kind of scary. I had undergarments, stockings, the corset, a petticoat, then another layer which give the dress its shape, and another layer over that with a blouse, and then the dress, then the collar… sometimes I had six layers of clothing on my body.”

The film oozes attention to Regency period detail. It is atmospheric and beautifully photographed and you can just let it flutter past you like the butterflies Fanny and her sister capture in glass jars. But the star of the film should always be Keats and his poetry and even though Jane Campion was clear the film was from Fanny Brawne’s perspective in that sense it is very much a fiction.