Dunkirk - Review: Nolan's Latest May Be His Greatest
Why do we choose to remember the worst of times? Out of regret or out of strength? Do we think back on our worst days to be glad they are behind us or because remembering we survived them helps us go forward? Growing up as a Brit, it took me a while to understand what people meant when speaking of the, “Dunkirk spirit” that’s supposed to embody us. At first you only see the headline facts of mass retreat and military disaster. Then eventually, you start to hear the smaller stories of people rallying together in what seemed like our darkest hour and it hits you. That people refusing to give up against overwhelming odds is something worth remembering and something worth embodying. Even during the war itself, Dunkirk was a film making subject (see Their Finest from earlier in this year) but now, through the eyes of Christopher Nolan, it gets its biggest screen outing to date. The result is also something worth remembering and may be one of the greatest war films ever produced.
In May 1940, the British army is in full retreat to the French beaches of Dunkirk with the enemy closing in and their path home continually broken by bombings and U-boats. Their miracle came with evacuation from a fleet of civilian vessels. We follow this through the eyes of pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), private Alex (Harry Styles) and sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) among others.
First up, I was in fact born and raised in the film’s featured English town of Weymouth.... I’m even writing this barely 400 yards from the filming location. So in that respect, I accept that I may have some positive bias towards this film. That said, it wasn’t the choice of locations that kept my heart pounding my 90 minutes. This film has an immense and genuinely surprising level of intensity. Once it starts, even in the odd slower scene, there really is no let up as the film’s compounding events continual make its characters feel in a state of danger. The threat can and usually does come at any moment in an outstanding thematic representation of hopelessness and adversity faced by those caught with it. In news that will shock exactly... none of you, Hanz Zimmer bullseye’s the soundtrack for a relentlessly nerve-racking score of ticks and throbs that enhances everything on screen.
The intensity is also helped by the film having 3 distinct stories as visually highlight in the opening minutes. One by land, on the beaches of Dunkirk mainly following newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy as a young soldier trying to get home. Then there’s a second by sea, following the civilian vessel of Rylance’s Mr Dawson, from Weymouth across the channel to France. The third is by air, following Tom Hardy as Spitfire pilot through dog fights and air support against bombings. Nolan delivers frequent and at times, rapid-cutting between the three to avoid any lapse in momentum. Yet the films big bombs come from the seamless merging of dramatic builds in two or three at a time for a compounding sense of tension and thrills. It's the simplicity of the peril that’s so bloody refreshing in the age of OTT blockbusters. This film has minimal exposition because seeing a Spitfire desperately trying to shoot down a bomber before it reaches a ship, or people frantically trying to escape a sinking vessel is universally captivating.
The bleak and grim visuals are masterfully captured in representation of the low defeated moral. Most of the skies are a mute grey like the British summer outside my window. The lighting feels natural rather than Hollywood manufactured and even among the CG featured open water scenes there’s a feel of consistency. This is in no way an action movie; yet it has some gripping moments of action courtesy of its airborne sections. The slow and clunky of the fighter-on-fighter combat is never played for spectacle (not once does a hot aircraft explode nor is there an emphasis on fancy manoeuvres) but it achieves spectacle through its immersive camerawork. Neither is Dunkirk afraid to get dark as shows the extent of survival desperation. It nails the balance of allowing some characters to briefly become antagonists without vilifying them.
In terms of bad points, although there is some pay off to it, the non-linear narrative felt out-of-place within the film. The events of the three stories don’t happen entirely in order which does lead to some points of confusion and could have been delivered better. There are also a few points where even the film’s sparser dialogue is treading on its own messages. Its visual storytelling is so strong that sometimes hearing a character vocalise things feels like it’s deliberately dumbing itself down. While of course, Dunkirk should keep itself accessible to a wider audience, a little more faith in them would have avoided this.
Despite many cast members being unnamed and depicted as a face amongst a crowd, Dunkirk does boast a stellar ensemble. A media focus during the film’s production was the casting of pop star Harry Styles and whether or not he could actually act. The answer is a resounding yes and even One Direction loathers will find themselves impressed. The Nolan familiars of Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy acquit themselves well with Murphy particularly impressing with his depiction of shell shock. However, the medal of “most likely to get the awards nomination” goes to Mark Rylance. In truth, the film shows little civilian involvement other than aboard Rylance’s small boat. He carries that entire theme on his shoulders and he does it magnificently.
While I found this film to be a thoroughly captivating, moving and rewarding viewing experience I can’t give it a universal recommendation. If you’re not in the mood to take something seriously, you will not enjoy this film and would be much better off seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming or War of the Planet of the Apes instead. If you’re looking for a film that will leave you emotionally drained yet uplifted, then Dunkirk will do you proud. It’s Nolan’s showing he hasn’t forgotten the roots of his early films in the blockbuster phase of his career. See and remember that sometimes surviving is enough.