Monday, April 09, 2018

Film review: DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

I tried to write a review of Dunkirk without using the vernacular 'twink', or slagging off Cokehead Delevingne. Did I succeed? Read on to find out...


The evacuation of 400,000 British men from Northern France during World War II is depicted from three viewpoints: that of the Allied soldiers on the beach, the civilians who bought them back to Britain in their personal boats, and the pilots caught trying to protect the soldiers from German attack overhead. Three time scales are employed in the film; we follow the soldiers for a week, the civilians for one day and the pilots for an hour, as their arcs converge to one pivotal moment.

Since his first film, Christopher Nolan has had a fascination with time and the passing of it, a fixation which has pervaded his lesser works to the point where I thought it detracted from the film’s quality (Interstellar, Inception). Yet, in Dunkirk, the three different time frames is not a gimmick; the structure works neatly with the story to build tension, leaving the audience on edge for the entire film. Just as a character narrowly avoids death from drowning in one segment, another character faces jeopardy in another plot strand.

The cinematography is stunning, with Hoyte van Hoytema capturing the beauty and the grit of the evacuations from every imaginable angle, from the aerial dogfights to the ships capsizing. (One of my greatest regrets is not seeing Dunkirk on 70mm, as Christopher Nolan intended for his film to be seen, when it first came out). The majority of the film is shot on expansive IMAX cameras, bar the scenes where characters get trapped in confined spaces, where the cinematographer employs a more restricted aspect ratio to contribute to the cloying sense of claustrophobia.

The visuals are complemented by the Sound design, which deservedly won both Sound Oscars. The timbre of the waves, hum of the fuselage and booming canons never sounded so tangible.

The sound design dovetails effectively with Hans Zimmer’s virtuoso, tick-tocking score to collectively evoke dread in the audience (the BBFC weren’t overstating things when they highlighted the ‘sustained threat’ of Dunkirk). The disorientating, rumbling bass, the jarring discordancy of the notes and the employment of a diminished scale to convey the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next, plays an integral part in anxiety-trip of watching Dunkirk.

Marshalling all of these considerable technical ingredients with the finesse of an auteur at the peak of his powers is Christopher Nolan, who was majorly snubbed through awards season this year, not picking up a single televised award.

I was never in doubt that Chris Nolan is extremely brainy (as attested to by the articulate way he speaks in interviews), but with some of his previous films (not naming any names, but space/time continuum and dreams within dreams), I felt he got so carried away with the concept, that at some point he forgets about the audience, and just expects us to keep up with his mile-a-minute mind.

As Dunkirk is about an actual event, rather than an abstract idea that just came to him, there’s a gravitas to his topic that forces Nolan to treat the narrative with the meticulousness and the reverence that such a momentous historical occasion merits.

His dedication to injecting as much veracity into the film-making experience as possible (Nolan eschewed CGI wherever possible, meaning much of the action we witness on screen actually happened), tight, precise storytelling (at 106 minutes, Dunkirk is a welcome change to the baggy run-times of his last three films Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, which have a combined length of about six days) and most of all, a perceptive understanding of the human psyche and man’s urge to survive in the most testing circumstances imaginable, render Nolan’s directing on Dunkirk some of the most impressive I’ve seen in a film.

This ‘fight or flight’ impulse is most overtly telegraphed by Harry Styles as ‘Alex’, an outwardly confident solider staging himself as an alpha-male, when really he’s just as terrified and desperate to be evacuated as everyone else.

In his first film role, and delivering a much more respectable effort in his transition to acting than his ex-girlfriend Cara Delevingne (worst performance of 2016, just reminding), Styles is one of several notable performers in an excellent ensemble cast who all captivatingly convey the misery and seeming hopelessness of their situations.

Aneurin Barnard is heartbreaking as ‘Gibson’, a soldier who, for reasons of his own, is mute for the most of his appearance in the film. Using just his wide green eyes, the audience can all but read his thought processes as he’s faced with some difficult dilemmas, with his self-sacrificing nature ultimately prevailing.

Fionn Whitehead plays ‘Tommy’, the main vessel through which the audience experience the Allied evacuation. Looks-wise, he fits the prototype of a Nolan leading man, with his dark hair, bright eyes and chiselled features (think: Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey).

He is also blessed with an expressive twink face, which in a dialogue-scant film like Dunkirk, is crucial. Watching Tommy in increasingly hazardous situations (Whitehead, Styles and Barnard are put through their physical paces in the film), the fear and discomfort we feel is mirrored in Whitehead’s natural yet commanding performance.

The rest of the cast combines familiar faces (Kenneth Branagh, Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, and two of Chris’ faves, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy) and an array of rising British stars (including Jack Lowden, who charmingly played Tony Benn in A United Kingdom, and the chameleonic talents of Barry Keoghan) who effectively take the screenplay, where characters are purposely devoid of emotional backstory, and make them feel lived in, sympathetic and identifiable.

That we are so invested in these characters’ wellbeing is because Dunkirk speaks to the base human instincts of empathy and survival.

As a celebration of the fight to stay alive, even in the most adversarial, challenging of circumstances, Dunkirk is incredibly potent. The intentionally emotive scenes strike a chord (such as Peter’s way of honouring his friend George in the newspaper, or Farrier’s sacrifice), but the smaller beats resonate just as much, like Peter lying to the Shivering Soldier about George’s fate, to spare the PTSD-stricken character further guilt, or Alex’s angst-ridden journey back home, where he ruminates on his selfish behaviour.

These simple acts of humanity and kindness moved me to tears.

Dunkirk is one of a kind: a war movie which doesn’t heroicise those involved, but merely present their force of will as it is. The usual war movie tropes (showing the doting family waiting at home, exposition-heavy dialogue dishing out history lessons and jingoistic platitudes) are eschewed in favour of an immersive, propulsive experience, where we are put in the characters’ war-torn, sodden, unwashed shoes.

In not glorifying these men but presenting them, warts and all, the film feels more honest, more inspirational. The unpredictability of war has never felt so tense, or real.

Full of visceral energy and leaving my nerves completely frayed, Dunkirk is masterful film-making.



Dunkirk was my favourite film of 2017. For a review of my favourite film of 2016, Moonlight, or to read my other movie reviews, check out my archives!


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