Dunkirk

Posted: August 3, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead.

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It is May of 1940, and after the invasion of France by Germany large numbers of allied soldiers have retreated to the seaside town of Dunkirk. With limited numbers of naval vessels available to transport the men back to England, and with only one pier, “The Mole”, that large ships can dock with it seems unlikely that Churchill’s hope of rescuing even a tenth of the 400,000+ men trapped by the advancing Germans, and under constant attack by the Luftwaffe, is possible.

But as the soldiers on the beach struggle to survive, and the RAF struggle to win the aerial battle, there may still be hope in the form of a flotilla of tiny pleasure boats, many crewed by civilians, who are making the dangerous crossing to France…

 

And so, decades after he first conceived the idea, Nolan’s desire to tell the Dunkirk story finally reaches our screens. There are many words that could be used to describe this film, but the first that springs to mind is magnificent.

Precious few films are perfect, and I’ll discuss a few tiny issues I had with Dunkirk later, but initially I think it’s important to laud what is a truly phenomenal piece of cinema. Short by Nolan’s standards, and with minimal dialogue, Dunkirk is a tour de force that marries exquisite cinematography with impeccable sound. This is a film that pretty much succeeds on every level.

Nolan’s decision to split the film into three parts, each of which has their own unique timeline, is at once complex yet also incredibly simplistic—certainly when compared with films like Memento, or Inception or Interstellar. Nolan has always seemed fascinated by time, but if you think about it the decision to focus on a triple narrative showing the evacuation from the perspective of land, air and sea, demanded some temporal dislocation to do the story justice. So for the men on the beach we experience a week, for those on the little boats it’s a day, but for the Spitfire pilots with limited fuel it’s just an hour.

Whether it’s in sweeping views of the beach itself, the unforgiving seas, or the bright blue skies where planes clash, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have produced visuals you cannot take your eyes off. Allied with the visuals though are the sounds. Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock of a soundtrack ratchets up the tension, but the sound effects that really drive home the terror. Unexpected gunshots ring out, each one devastatingly loud. Stuka dive bombers scream towards the ground, their deadly payload exploding on the beach. Torpedoes streak through the water, and rivets pop and metal screams as ships sink.

This is not a war film in the typical sense. We barely see any German soldiers, yet they loom over everything like an implacable force of nature, as if they were less an army than an out of control forest fire or a tsunami. This is a disaster film. This is a story of survival against all odds.

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Tom was getting a little paranoid that Nolan always seemed to want to make him wear a mask…

The cast are excellent. Wearing a mask for much of the film Tom Hardy is excellent as spitfire pilot Farrier, and if they gave out Oscars for eyes alone he deserves one, because he imbues every moment of indecision perfectly. Quite frankly if Nolan wants to make a Battle of Britain sequel and bring back Hardy I’d be all for it and I really had to fight the urge to cheer every time Tom shot down another German plane.

As Commander Bolton, Branagh is marvellously resolute, channelling the likes of John Mills to perfection. Similarly Rylance utterly convinces as Mr Dawson, owner of one of the little ships.

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Ever the gentleman Sir Ken even doffs his hat to German dive bombers

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, Harry Styles (who apparently Nolan didn’t realise was a huge music star, yeah right….) as Alex and Barnard as Gibson do well with less notable roles. Not that they aren’t important, in fact they’re the heart of the film, but as with something like Blackhawk Down there comes a point where soldiers tend to merge a little into one.

The rest of the cast are uniformly great, with Cillian Murphy turning in a fine performance as a shell shocked solider, and James D’Arcy giving it his best stiff upper lip as one of Commander Bolton’s fellow officers.

I did say I had a few issues. For one thing the beaches do look a little empty, and you never quite believe there are almost half a million men there. I can understand why Nolan did this, showing a great expanse of empty beach does enhance the sense of isolation for those men we do see, but it’s a shame the epic scale of the evacuation wasn’t just a bit more evident, and this is also true when it comes to the flotilla of pleasure boats. There were hundreds but the way they’re filmed it looks like just a handful. Again I understand, Nolan is showing a snapshot of the evacuation, not the whole thing, but again it would have been nice to get more of an idea of the scale of the evacuation.

There are some issues around the lack of non-white faces, we see the odd black face amongst the French but that’s about it and it’s historical fact that there were Indian troops serving in the British Expeditionary Forces. Of course you can argue since they numbered in the hundreds amongst hundreds of thousands, and since Nolan is only showing a fraction of the evacuation, that logically we wouldn’t have seen them, but it is a shame we don’t at least a glimpse.

Overall though, this is a fantastic film, and one that kept my heart racing and my eyes glued to the screen throughout its 106 minute run time. At once old fashioned but also bang up to date, this is one of my favourite films of the year so far and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t get Oscar nominations aplenty.

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There’s only One Direction lads, back to Blighty!

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