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.

Love poems you wish you had written 2015 – #1 John Donne

JohnDonneLast year I followed the example of the fabulous David J Bauman over at The Dad Poet and posted some of my favourite love poetry. I had a great time rediscovering some old favourites and finding new work that moved me; poetry that really had the power to distil emotions and make me cry out (internally anyway!) ‘Yes!!’

So this year, I thought I would do something similar, but with poems nominated by friends on social media. I have always maintained that those who say ‘I don’t like/get poetry’ just haven’t found the right poet for them, so I do hope something on this blog inspires you to take a closer look, for Valentine’s Day on the 14th, and onwards.

The first poem of the week was nominated by Lorna Fergusson, over at Fictionfire, and seconded by Emma Darwin. It was published nearly 400 years ago, but it still has the power to send (pleasurable) shivers down the spine…..

The Good-Morrow
By John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

This is a wonderful evocation of the sensual and spiritual aspects of the love between two people, and as the film Fifty Shades of Grey hits the screen, I posit the idea that Donne is sexier by far than anything E L James came up with. The lines For love, all love of other sights controls/And makes one little room an everywhere is so quietly passionate that the intensity of the emotion expressed can escape you. Makes me go all warm inside and conjures up an illicit weekend away – 48 hours and never leaving the room…….

I thought I would also offer a reading of the poems I post on here, if possible, and on YouTube I found my favourite actor, the lovely Kenneth Branagh, reading it. Do let me know what you think, and if you have favourite love poems of your own.

Enjoy 🙂

Crikey I’ve got a website! Taking control of my freelance life…

I have recently received some sage advice about how I must run my freelance business. I need structure, routine and a business plan. I need to market my work efficiently online, keep accurate financial records and get out ‘there’. My ad hoc bohemian approach was causing me unnecessary stress I was told. Get timetabling, project planning, networking. Take regular breaks from the computer screen. Exercise. Hmm…

Continue reading “Crikey I’ve got a website! Taking control of my freelance life…”

On the 11th hour – Wilfred Owen & a most moving poetic parable

The 11th of November, and Remembrance Sunday were days my father held above most others. Some of my earliest memories involve standing to attention by the black & white television in the back room as  Big Ben chimed, the guns went off to mark the end of the minutes silence and the Queen stepped forward to place her poppy wreath. I remember lots of sad, old faces; berets, medals and inevitably, wheelchairs.

I have very mixed feelings about war and the waste of young lives it inevitably involves. I admire our armed forces and still keep Remembrance Sunday as a mark of respect for my father and all it meant to him.

However, I feel that despite all the horrors of the wars of the 20th century politicians have learnt nothing. Young men and women are still sent into war zones about which we know very little for causes we hardly understand. My daughter’s 17 year old friends are talking about the army as an alternative to university and unemployment, but seem to assume combat is an extension of a Playstation or X Box game. It is hard to listen to.

So today, I reserve a place on my blog for a poem that has always been one which has moved me more than any other as a ‘commandment’ to us to think long and hard before once more sending our troops into situations where they die with honour; heroic in defence of their comrades and their units. But for a wider good? Who is entitled to make that decision?

Inspired by a parable in the Book of Genesis , in this poem, Wilfred Owen acknowledges God’s mercy in a way he rarely does in his work; but he leaves man to take the final decision. And it is the wrong one.

The Parable of the Old Man & the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen – written 1918

God rest their souls.