Sunday, 23 July 2017


(M) ★★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy.

The queues for coffee at music festivals are always out of hand.

There are few modern blockbuster directors who conjure up the "what will they do next?" intrigue and anticipation quite like Christopher Nolan.

Even after the disappointments of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's star is untarnished, such are his talents and his incredible winning streak spanning 2000 to 2010.

Thankfully Dunkirk is a return to form. In spite of its almost self-sabotaging non-linear narrative, it manages to re-tell an amazing war story in a manner that is somehow both intimate and sweeping in scope.

The Dunkirk evacuation of WWII, in which more than 300,000 British and French troops were removed from their prone position on the French coast, is told through three interwoven stories that encompass the land, the sea, and the air.

On the Dunkirk beach, British private Tommy (Whitehead) joins thousands of his fellow army men in trying to find a way home. On the sea, civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Rylance) heads across the English Channel to do his bit to bring soldiers back to Blighty. And in the skies over the channel, pilots (Hardy and Lowden) do battle with the Luftwaffe in an effort to protect the soldiers on Dunkirk beach and the vessels trying to rescue them.

Like all good war movies, Dunkirk puts you in the metaphorical trenches alongside the soldiers - in this case its on the beach, in a small pleasure boat, and in the cockpit of a Spitfire. This creates an unlikely intimacy to the film, despite the scantness of its character development. For such a huge production, Dunkirk feels strangely small-scale at times, which is to the benefit of the film. It's refreshingly short and is very much about doing the bare minimum to maximum effect - this is big-budget minimalism.

Nolan hones in on the action and the necessities, drawing enough depth out of his characters so we care about them and their seemingly insurmountable predicaments, while never wasting a moment of screen time on trivial matters. The cast members are uniformly excellent, particularly seasoned veterans Rylance, Murphy, and Branagh, as well as newcomers Whitehead and Styles, all helping to bring these lightly drawn characters to life.

The film is particularly impressive not just because of what it includes, but also what it leaves out. There are no warm-and-fuzzy moments where characters reminisce about their lives and wives back home, no unnecessary swathes of dialogue, and no stirring speeches (save for someone reading Churchill's famed "we'll fight them on the beaches" bit at the film's end). In fact, in the majority of its best moments, no one says a word. Nolan lets the action speak.

There are also no German soldiers. We know they're there, shooting at the Brits, piloting the Luftwaffe fighters, and firing the torpedoes, but we never lay eyes on a single Nazi. This unseen enemy creates a daunting inhuman threat, as well as letting the focus remain on the imperilled British. It ramps up the tension, and is a neat, almost unnoticed trick.

The set pieces and constant hurdles, especially those facing Tommy, keep the action rolling along. Nolan also crafts a pretty good aerial dogfight in between trying to drown us and disorientate us at every opportunity. In fact, the film is a balance of contradictions, capturing the chaos and the mundane nature of the Dunkirk evacuation, the humanity and inhumanity within the situation, and the personal and the large-scale elements of it.

The only downside is that damned staggered narrative, which plays with the film's passage of time. It makes the audience do extra work, which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't so unnecessary. This story could have been told just as easily and effectively without the disruptive non-linear structure.

Thankfully it's not enough to sink Dunkirk. It's such a thrillingly compact and direct war story that no amount of ill-judged narrative trickery can undo its worth. It is chilling in places, powerfully emotional in others, and a stirring re-telling of a valiant wartime effort to lessen the impacts of a devastating military defeat. Nolan, being the proud Londoner that he is, has given us the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

I can't wait to see what Nolan does next.

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