So far Dunkirk has grossed $129 million (figure on 27 July) against costs of $100 million. It has done well in the UK which is what you would expect, but it has also taken around $75 million in the USA which strikes me as not expected. In South Korea it has taken almost $13.5 million (27 July). This figure is not just unexpected, since it is more than the UK, it is barely credible. (The Harry Styles effect, I am unreliably informed.)
I think the story of the Dunkirk evacuation in the Second World War in 1940 is essentially a British one, and so unlikely to travel. But Nolan’s Dunkirk film is essentially an action film, and thus has the potential to travel anywhere. It was shrewd of him to spot its potential as an action narrative.
I liked especially the way Nolan intercuts his three stories set on land, sea and air, and then as the film progresses he speeds up that intercutting in his aim of creating a visual symphony. To underpin this I found the dialogue largely inaudible (maybe because I’m 69), but it hardly bothered me. And when I could hear the words spoken by the diction-trained Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, I felt an abrupt change of mood in the film, and a drop in the temperature. On the other hand, the reading out of Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech from a newspaper report is a masterstroke, as the words are read in an anti-Churchillian manner (Bressonian almost, if you know what that means) and suit the ‘desperate-heroic’ tone of the film.
Film is ideally suited to battle action. [See chapter 4 of my book Film Past, Film Future on battle films – available on Amazon.] Seeing Dunkirk made me watch the magnificent BBC/Lionsgate film, First Light, about the Battle of Britain pilot Geoffrey Wellum, since, like in Dunkirk, the aerial sequences are so terrific. Also, it made me want to re-see the BBC’s 2004 docu-drama recreating the strategic background to the evacuation and the tactical difficulties in achieving it.
Now, costume dramas, of which this is one, speak to the time in which they are made as much as to the historical events being portrayed. Five minutes into watching the film, I thought, “Why has Nolan made this film? Why are Time-Warner funding it?” The answer came loud and clear: it is to tune into the Brexit mood in the UK. This was a foolish strain of thought. It doesn’t account for the film’s success in the USA, never mind South Korea (although it may account for only modest box-office success in Europe). Nor does it allow for the fact that Nolan has been nursing this project for two or three decades.
The UK general election in June upset me greatly (and I have written about it in Belaboured. Bats Broken. Britain Shaken – see http://amzn.to/2eN3irH.) Churchill’s wise pronouncement that wars are not won by evacuations made me think that Britain does not regain its poise and place in the world by its current exit strategy. But maybe it can do so after the EU exit just as the British army went on to success after Dunkirk. And then I realise that history does not repeat itself, necessarily.