Wednesday 17 July 2019

Dunkirk stars show plenty of spirit

A new World War II epic tells a gripping story, with Harry Styles and Cillian Murphy joining a stellar cast

Stellar cast: Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh
Stellar cast: Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh
Fionn Whitehead in the epic WW II movie

Anne Marie Scanlon

'Are you inviting me out on a date, Harry Styles?" are not words I thought I would ever say. I was meeting the One Direction star to discuss his role in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

Styles is one of a number of actors making their film debut in the movie about this pivotal moment in British history.

The cast also contains quite a notable trio of Irish actors - Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Barry Keoghan, who has gone on to have a spectacular career since being the notorious 'cat killer' in Love/Hate.

Before I meet Harry Styles, I sit down with Cillian Murphy to discuss his role in the epic film. I've been told by various other (non-Irish) journalists that they find Murphy "difficult". This is our second meeting and I wonder if the upfront, honest and charming man I met before has undergone some sort of mysterious personality change. He hasn't. One thing I can tell you about Murphy is that he doesn't like stupid questions. To my mind, this makes him human rather than 'difficult'.

Fionn Whitehead in the epic WW II movie
Fionn Whitehead in the epic WW II movie

In Dunkirk, the story is told from three perspectives - there is the story of the boys (and I do mean boys) on the beach, surrounded by the enemy and waiting to be evacuated. There were approximately 400,000 on the beach, with nowhere to hide, while German fighter pilots picked them off. The film starts out with soldier Tommy (a fantastic performance from Fionn Whitehead) arriving at the beach. In the air, two RAF men (one is Tom Hardy) try to pick off German rivals. The third strand is the story that most people know - the 'Little Ships', manned by civilians, who pitched in to help evacuate the beach and gave the world the phrase 'Dunkirk spirit'.

That narrative follows the Moonstone boat which is navigated by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who has Irish grandparents, and his pal George (Barry Keoghan). En route, the trio come across a wreck with one survivor, the nameless 'Shivering Soldier', played by Cillian Murphy.

Murphy's character is typical of all of the other characters in that the audience is given no backstory. There are no 'war' film cliches in Dunkirk, no 'girl back home', no foxhole confessions and no cut-ins of generals strategising and providing exposition.

The script is extremely sparse but this lack of dialogue works extremely well. "It's pure cinema," Murphy says. "The film we have now came from silent film and if you can sustain a film for two hours without any dialogue, that's pure cinema. The script is quite slim, so a lot of it is silent and that to me is pure cinema."

When I say that, by the end of the film, despite not knowing anything about the characters or their background, I cared immensely about their individual fates, "that's quite an achievement," Murphy agrees.

A lot has been made of the conditions in which the film was made and how physically uncomfortable it was for the actors at times (wearing soaking wet woollen army uniforms on a choppy sea). "Journalists always want you to say," (Murphy puts on a very actorly voice) "Oh, it's so difficult and so hard". He laughs before continuing, "It was fine - you know, real people died, we're just actors who got a bit wet. It's not going down a mine, or being a fireman, a doctor or a surgeon, you're just dressing up and getting a bit damp."

Of his fellow men in the boat, Murphy is lavish in his praise. "Barry is a really brilliant talent," he says. "He's just one of those young fellas that has it. He just has it; you don't get many of those." When I ask him if he enjoyed working with Mark Rylance, he says "Oh listen, I'm just a huge fan of his and I have been for many, many years. Not just as an actor which we all know - but as a person. He's got a wonderful energy, he's lovely to be around".

And then it was time to meet Harry Styles, who has managed to successfully do something which so many other musicians, including Mick Jagger, to whom he is often compared, have failed miserably to do - which is to be taken seriously as an actor. Rumour has it that Christopher Nolan had no idea who Styles was when he cast him. I ask him if this is true.

"I auditioned," he tells me. Yes, but did the acclaimed director know about the Harry Styles phenomenon? "I don't think he [Christopher Nolan] is always necessarily up to date," he replies tactfully. "I don't think he's a big magazine guy," Styles adds, laughing.

That's the thing I liked most about Harry Styles - he laughs a lot. No wonder he's currently one of the coolest people on the planet. Not only is the 23-year-old star young and handsome, with the confidence and charisma of a man twice his age (well, he's been dealing with frenzied fans for seven years now), but he's fun and funny and not afraid to be the butt of the joke. We're joined by Tom Glynn-Carney, and when I ask if they did any partying while making the film, Styles says "we formed a large conga line in the town (with the large number of extras). We had a whale of a time, still in battle gear".

Styles speaks intelligently about his character, and the film in general, being full of praise for Christopher Nolan but he's at his best when he's kidding around. He tells me that the room in his hotel in Holland (where they filmed Dunkirk) was "so weird". "Yeah," says Glynn-Carney, "it was full of weird lady pictures." Of course, I immediately ask what sort of 'lady pictures'? Styles turns to Glynn-Carney and says "Oh thanks for that one. What sort of lady pictures?"

We're all laughing by now. I ask Glynn-Carney if the pictures came with the room or with Harry? "He brought them with him," Glynn-Carney deadpans.

I wonder if Styles has given any thought to future roles. "This film I was very excited about. I loved it so much and felt very honoured to be a part of it." Then he adds, "Maybe Legally Blonde 3, I'll be Reese's assistant." I ask him if he can do Elle's signature move. "Bend and snap? Yeah, right!" he replies, beaming.

It's at this point that Styles starts badgering me to go see the play in which Glynn-Carney is appearing. He keeps poking me in the arm and saying "You should see it, it's on down the road. You should see it, incredibly good reviews."

That's when I ask him if he's asking me out. However horrified he might be (I'm old enough to be his mother), he hides it well. Oh yes, Harry Styles can really act.

Dunkirk is in cinemas nationwide.

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