Imagine if the team that made “The English Patient” tried to make the same kind of movie, with even more brave-lads-fighting-the-Jerries porn and this time with Extra Added English country manor porn, and without really good actors, and this movie is what you’d have.
The plot hinges on what a young girl sees her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) – looking positively skeletal and more lollipopish than ever – and Robbie (James McAvoy) doing up against a wall in a study. Jealous, she takes steps which end with Robbie stuck in and around Dunkirk as the Nazis close in as Cecilia and her sister work as nurses on the home front, tending to the heartbreaking tragedy of Bad Make Up Wounds. The events are then recollected in one of the most patently manipulative conclusions in movie history, which doesn’t work even though Vanessa Redgrave does her best (which is really good, of course) to sell it.
The movie is trying to have it both ways: it wants us to take seriously the stories it tells about awful things that happen between people and during war, but also its message about the unreliability of narrative. For most of the first part of the movie, we see the same events twice, once as observed by Cecilia’s sister from a distance, and once “as they happen,” which we later learn isn’t any more accurate than the first version. Some of the events, we learn from Ms. Redgrave, including the most tear-jerking ones, never actually happen at all. Dropped in the middle of that is a long, tour de force, single, tracking shot on the beach at Dunkirk which stops the movie cold in a hey-look-what-I-can-do moment from director Joe Wright.
The worst moment is probably the confrontation near the end between Cecilia and her sister, which is supposed to make the viewer think it’s the climax of the movie. There’s simply no resonance to the scene at all. It may be intended that way, as it turns out, but for that to work, the viewer has to think that Knightley could have done it if she’d wanted to. She just doesn’t have those kind of chops.
Unless you can’t get enough of Knightley – just about every appearance she makes is carefully framed to make her look like the epitome of desire, and there is a certain value to seeing her soaking wet and in a slip – this is a must to avoid, particularly because it appears to be selling the message that writing is, by nature, dishonest.