Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is quite the modern cinematic achievement. Less of a war film and more of a disaster film, the director’s latest effort takes a resolutely technical approach to its story in order to immerse the audience in the experience of that daring rescue in 1940, and succeeds in being not only an extremely well-crafted spectacle, but also a deeply affecting and rousing emotional experience.
Shot in eye-popping 70mm and IMAX, the story is divided into three sections: the retreating soldiers on the beach, led by Fionne Whitehead and Harry Styles, and overseen by naval officer Kenneth Branagh; a civilian boat captained by stalwart father Mark Rylance, answering the call for volunteers to help in the evacuation; and a trio of Spitfires, one of which is piloted by Tom Hardy, doing their best to protect those below from the lurking German airforce.
The way in which these separate threads are spun out and then intertwined is a marvel of editing and sound design, the disparate events connected by Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score and some cannily associative cross-cutting which enables the film’s focus to be both wide and intimate. The experience at first is confusing and disorienting, and, rare for a Nolan film, there is very little expository dialogue to help ground the viewer.
It’s a bold and somewhat contrary approach that is just one of a number of ways in which Nolan subverts expectations. For a war film, Dunkirk is oddly bloodless, and there are few bodies on show. The Germans are barely glimpsed, and many of the characters are never named. Those going in expecting another Saving Private Ryan will be confounded. Essentially, in a similar way to Mad Max: Fury Road, this is one long action sequence, a ride that demands you hang on until the end, cinema at its purest.
It sometimes feels like a video game, a medium that is becoming ever more immersive, and in its use of tracking shots and extreme close-ups, the film does its best to put you in the place of its protagonists. The characters are particularly avatar-like. Surprisingly, debutant Harry Styles is given much of the dialogue, acquitting himself well, and is the only character to have anything like a real arc. Many of the soldiers look the same, whey-faced, gaunt, dark haired. Like the heroes we inhabit in our games, they are voiceless, shell-like. Nolan, who has been accused of being a cold filmmaker, is offering these hulls and inviting us to fill them with our own thoughts and emotions, to project their experiences back at us. Tom Hardy’s character is a particularly desirable archetype. Once again emoting from behind a mask, he dominates every frame of his screentime, and his most memorable moment seemed to me to be 2017’s equivalent of Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump in The Great Escape. It’s an instantly iconic performance.
Despite all the tricks and screencraft on show, Nolan has presented a deeply felt experience that succeeds in delivering powerful moments of stirring emotion. Perhaps as an Englishman I’m biased, but the sight of the collaborative national effort for survival, and a sense of an unspoken fraternal duty to preserve life gave me great cheer. It seems like a rare experience to walk out of a war film feeling so positive.
Maybe it was particular to the screening, or maybe I’m just getting old, but I did find some of the dialogue a little hard to make out, and there is a subplot that felt somewhat contrived, but these are minor quibbles. In our current climate of remakes, sequels, remaquels, reboots, reimaginings, franchises, cinematic universes, and on-demand binge-watching, it is both refreshing and heartening to see a director deliver a big budget extravaganza that is unabashedly cinematic, adult yet broadly appealing, intelligent and exciting. It’s a viewing experience that demands to be seen on the biggest cinema screen you can find, and it is difficult to imagine another director pulling it off. Spielberg? Cuarón? Villeneuve? Hmm. When it comes to blockbusters, Nolan is at the top of his game, playing in a league of his own, and we are lucky to have him.
Review by Matthew Blackwell
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Review by Matthew Blackwell
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