Review: Dunkirk, Loving Vincent (& other stories)

It might be that I’ve seen Loving Vincent and Dunkirk close together but there’s something about both of them that appeals to me as a writer. Both go back to primary sources in that they use the letters of Vincent and Theo van Gogh, and the speeches of Winston Churchill in the dialogue to effect perhaps the greatest and quietest moments of emotional resonance in each. Of course, to those familiar with these texts and speeches this works, because it merges story into history and memory. Yet neither are documentaries because narratives are constructed around these historical moments and individuals, but at times it is easy to forget.

There is more of a traditional story telling arc to Loving Vincent, and with Dunkirk, more deliberation as to the structure of the timelines – which I will call a confluence of arcs. But this means their structures are laid bare at the beginning of each film, again ensuring we see them as stories, consciously rendered aforethought.

However, in the end, Dunkirk feels less story-like than a relentless continuance of events, like the tide on that French beach, or the attacks of the unseen Germans. This effect is heightened by both the soundtrack and the lack of dialogue which lends it space for unfolding outcomes, but also urgency. It’s a film where, as in life, things keep coming at the characters, who feel like they are the ones the camera just happens to follow, at least in the first half of the film. In contrast, with Loving Vincent, Armand is tasked directly to become the main character, and while his journeys are taken reluctantly, they transform him into the relentless ‘force’ of the story. His task soon inspires his drive to solve a mystery. In Dunkirk the drive is for the soldiers to survive and escape the beach, for the sailors to rescue them, and for the pilots to do their bit to help them all.

But enough about Vincent. Let’s stick with Dunkirk and World War II. While I have mentioned history, my experience of this film is somewhat mediated by the novella The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. I knew this would be the case. As a story, I highly recommend Gallico’s work, even if the style is old-fashioned. While I’m aware of film versions I haven’t seen them and have no immediate yearning to do so such is the power of his deceptively simple telling rather than showing.

I have this copy with this cover.

So yeah, even after appreciating all the effort in presenting the history as accurately as possible, I still turn to fiction to understand Dunkirk and my reaction to it. Or, I am using Dunkirk to reassess my memory of The Snow Goose. Either way, both speak to each other through me.

They fit and reflect each other without overlapping so very much. Dunkirk has shown me France and the terror on the beach and at sea, while Snow Goose showed me the English perspective, it showed me that as relentless as war can be, nature can be more so, and as cruel and desperate as war makes people, so they can be loyal and brave.

Maybe films like this go to first experiences and memory. I came across The Snow Goose when I was perhaps 10 or so. About the same time I first saw another film and one scene in Dunkirk that returned me to it – my first fear and panic watching the sinking of the ferry in The Black Stallion. But the more I think about it, each story is about what conflict and strife and political machinations do to the young, directly and indirectly. Yes, even this horse movie, as it deliberately references the legends around Alexander the Great’s battle mount Bucephalus – yet another unknowing being co-opted into war. For a more direct example there is the film (and novel and play) War Horse, but I don’t think I could ever see this film again.

Always & forever galloping on a Mediterranean beach.

I’m formulating the idea that films (or any story) can only evoke memories of like experiences. For me it is recursive, films get me calling up old memories of   stories more than lived experiences. This is my perspective, but for others, perhaps the film will speak more directly.

Any who,  Snow Goose and Dunkirk, and even The Black Stallion are carefully orchestrated explorations of randomness – this is the big theme. People (and geese and horses) encounter each other and their lives entwine and unwind because of any and every possibility in nature, and due to human ingenuity and war, even amid their greatest fears and worse outcomes. In the end, because they are stories, this looks like destiny, because we remember the string pullers of the narrative, the writers like the three Fates of Greek myth.

These works lend me to reflect upon uncertainty principles: while looking down from the perspective of the pilot (or indeed goose) the bobbing heads in the water remind me of the random movements described in Brownian motion. Yet up close they are not so random, as each individual makes every effort to survive on shore and at sea.

As you can gather, Dunkirk has left me with converging impressions and reminders rather than a straight forward singular experience. Which is like the film. Hence, this is really a conventional review. It hardly matters though,  no one needs my say so to see this, but if you want a reminder of the intermittent chaos of war, and a lesson on how to thread disorder into a coherent form, then I do encourage a viewing.

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