Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Claude Lanzmann, Andrew Motion and A N Wilson.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir by Claude Lanzmann

In the Telegraph, Nicholas Shakespeare delights in stories from the French director's life. Though Lanzmann is famous for Shoah, his 1985 documentary about the Holocaust, and lived life on the edge fighting for the French resistance, Shakespeare believes that the book has light as well as shade: "his memoir is also - surprisingly and triumphantly - a childlike celebration of life as Lanzmann sees it epitomised by the singularity of another hare that bounds out of the darkness". Though some dates don't seem to add up in this "dense" memoir, Shakespeare approaches such inconsistencies with ease, claiming they do not detract from the remarkable undertaking Lanzmann has attempted at the age of 86.

In this week's New Statesman, George Walden is similarly awed by Lanzmann's execution in condensing such a remarkable life into one (albeit large) volume. Calling it "a breathless book", he writes: "the zest for adventure is compelling, the writing - beautifully translated by Frank Wynne - fluent and inventive...the character and topographical sketches dazzling, the action sequences enthralling". But Walden is less forgiving of Lanzmann's embellishments, and does not hesitate to suggest that "A politician must justify his actions in the light of history; a writer and cineaste, it appears, is permitted his modish enthusiasms".

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion

There's high praise for Andrew Motion's attempt to pick up where Robert Louis Stevenson left off in the beloved Treasure Island. In the Independent on Sunday, Suzi Feay claims the book convincingly recreates the style and scale of the 19th Century novel. "Motion is never afraid to slow the action in order to create some glowing effect of atmosphere or setting". In terms of its relationship to the Stevenson's classic, Feay believes it is a sensitively rendered homage: "The narrative's darker meditations and developments may stray into the territory of Joseph Conrad, but in a real sense, RLS is on this voyage too ... I think he'd approve of this rich and thrilling narrative which so ingeniously complements his own".

Writing in the Sunday Express, Martin Newell perceives that "Motion, probably for the first time in years, is having fun with this". The style, he says, is "airy, almost carefree, rapidly drawing the reader in", and has an "elegance" befitting the poet in Motion. Newell is also convinced by the attempt to recreate the world of Treasure Island, going so far as to say, "it is sometimes hard to perceive the join between their books".

Hitler: A Short Biography by A N Wilson

A N Wilson's take on Hitler and Nazism has, to say the least, received a mixed response. In the Observer, Nick Cohen describes this "short, sharp" work as "a liberation" when compared to the innumerable hefty biographies of Hitler, and praises the attempt to refresh a subject that has been exhausted by others: "Wilson refuses to play the 'parlour game' of counterfactual history and ask what if Britain and France had found the strength to stop the Nazis in 1936. The historian should only study what happened, he says". Cohen also writes that Wilson "is superb at putting himself in the shoes of others and sketching the mood of a time with a few strokes of the pen". But his adulation ends abruptly at Wilson's closing sentiments, which he believes let the entire book down since they are merely "witterings that are so asinine Thought for the Day could broadcast them".

Historian Richard J Evans dismisses not only the ending as misinformed, but the entire biography. In an acerbic attack in the New Statesman which spares no aspect of the book, he writes : "What might do as background research for a novel won't do as preparation for a serious work of history. Nor does he seem to have thought very hard or taken much care over what little reading he has done". Evans proceeds to list just a few of these failings, turning Wilson's claims inside out. Furthermore, he notes that "There are many contradictions in the book's arguments", and Wilson often uses "material that is marginal or irrelevant". Incredulity is the dominant note: "It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography".

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Dunkirk is an accomplished, expressive war film without the blood and guts

Christopher Nolan both stretches time and compresses it, creating suspense without horror.

The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.

Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.

That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).

To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.

Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.

It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.

Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.

For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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