Dunkirk (2017)

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I have never made it a secret that I am not the biggest fan of Christopher Nolan. If I have to be completely honest, I find his movies to often be unbearably dull, overlong and just plain overrated. It doesn’t help that Nolan has a legion of rabid fans that follow his every move and praise him as the Messiah of Cinema. Don’t get me wrong – he is a noble filmmaker and far from boring. I just thought he was over-ambitious in nearly everything he’s made, particularly his bigger-budget films that just left me cold. Interstellar was a mess, and his Dark Knight trilogy was composed of about a dozen good moments stretched over far too long a series. However, he never lacked ambition – and I can honestly say, Dunkirk was the first time I ever saw Nolan’s ambition pay off. This review won’t be a discussion on Nolan’s previous works, but rather serve to highlight by Dunkirk is perhaps Nolan’s first bonafide masterpiece.

I saw this film this morning in a sparsely-occupied IMAX theatre (it was probably empty because very few people actually go to the cinema at 9AM, which is personally one of my favorite times to see a movie), and the only other occupants were two old men seated behind me. After the film ended, and everyone left the cinema, I overheard the men engaging in quite a fascinating conversation – both their fathers had been troops at Dunkirk, and they were discussing how this film reflects what their fathers told them. The point of this seemingly random anecdote was that Dunkirk is about World War 2, a subject that isn’t a stranger to cinema. However, for some reason, many films fail to show the impact of the Dunkirk evacuation, one of the most fascinating and dramatic moments in the war. It was a story needing the touch of a filmmaker with ambition, and as I have said before, Christopher Nolan has no shortage of big ideas when it comes to his movies. I was fascinated that he chose to make Dunkirk, because it showed a certain maturity to Nolan’s career, because a war film isn’t easy to make, never mind a war film about one of the most complex and dramatic events in war history.

Dunkirk features a unique narrative structure. I never doubted that Nolan would try something unique and complicated for this film, as he has shown with recent films that he is far above making a straightforward film. The narrative structure consists of three interweaving stories surrounding the Dunkirk evacuations, all of which feature a different time period. They all weave together while still serving to be different stories that all center on the period that this film covers. It may seem quite complicated, and it times it can be dreadfully confusing, but unlike Inception or Interstellar, this film never attempts to force the audience to have to think too hard. There’s nothing wrong with intelligent cinema, Nolan has just shown himself to be far more interested in confusing the audience rather than entertaining them. Dunkirk shows Nolan making a film that is unconventional and cerebral but in a way that works in its favor rather than detracting from the overall experience.

The first narrative is entitled “The Mole”, where a young soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) finds himself trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, and tries desperately to get onto one of the British ships heading back to England. He ultimately fails, and has to remain on the beach. Joining him are a variety of other young soldiers, notably Alex (Harry Styles), who naturally takes on the position of de facto leader of the group. Together, the soldiers try to navigate a way to escape and do whatever they need to do to ensure that they are going to remain safe, even if part of this involves a gradual deterioration of the fabric of their sense of community, with allegations being thrown around liberally. It is a fascinating example of complex character work that is very often missing in war films, that celebrate the brotherhood of soldiers without looking at the more direct implications of war having a toll on these soldiers and causing them to become paranoid and suspicious of everyone, including their own brethren.

Dunkirk is an ensemble film, but I think Whitehead is the most natural example of a lead in this film. This is an explosive debut from an actor who is going to become quite notable as a product of Dunkirk‘s success. He commands the screen beautifully, creating a character that is complex, naive and very brave, and simply wants to do whatever he can to defend his country without being killed. Of course, Dunkirk caused extreme buzz because of the casting of Harry Styles. I wasn’t quite enthusiastic about his casting, but it is always unwise to write someone off completely as part of their previous work in other professions within the entertainment industry. Styles actually impressed me here – it felt less like a deliberate attempt to market this film to younger audiences that may not quite be on board for a complex war film, and more like Nolan actually saw potential in Styles. His performance may not be the most memorable, but he was good enough to force me to pretend that he hadn’t been a part of a radically mediocre boy band. If Dunkirk proves anything, it is that Styles may just have a career as an actor if he continues to actually try.

The second narrative, and my personal favorite, is titled “The Sea” and sees Mr. Dawson (Sir Mark Rylance), a civilian mariner, taking his boat to Dunkirk as a part of the British military’s request for civilian sailors to bring their boats to the beaches so that as many soldiers can be evacuated as possible directly off from the beach. Joining him are his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan). Together they make their way across the channel to bring their fellow countrymen home. However, along the way they encounter a figure known as The Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked soldier that found himself abandoned in the middle of the sea. Mr. Dawson takes him in, but soon realizes that soldier has seen far more than Dawson expected, and his pleas to not go to Dunkirk are ignored. Dunkirk is a film that constantly reminds the audience of the horrors of war, and as reflected in the traumatized soldier, it isn’t something to be celebrated – the bravery of the men who fought certainly should, but the act of war is not something that needs to be glamourized. But we’ll talk about that soon.

I found this segment to be the most fascinating of the entire film. Very rarely do we see the civilian reactions and involvement to the war. There were many civilians in the war that found themselves entering into the line of peril to serve their country in their own way, and Dunkirk introduces us to the idea of someone directly and voluntarily undergoing a mission that could result in their death. It was something unsettlingly good, and Rylance really does a remarkable job of making this segment so much more intricate than it seemed. His quiet and subtle performance is contrasted with Murphy’s terrified and horrifyingly-energetic performance. Dunkirk set out to show the impact of the war on everyone, and to see these events through the eyes of two figures rarely explored properly – the civilian and the shell-shocked soldier who may just never recover from that trauma, is absolutely stunning.

Finally, the third segment, that takes place over one hour, is titled “The Air” sees two Royal Air Force pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they defend the skies and give air support to the evacuations happening below. Over the course of the hour, they start to take strain after their leader is shot down and Collins’ plane begins to malfunction. It is up to Farrier now to defend his country in his own small way and ensure that as many British lives make it home as possible, whatever the cost. The friendship between the two pilots forms the core of the story. Honestly, this segment was one of the weaker parts of the story, yet it was still masterful. The friendship shown between the two men was truly touching, and Hardy is as great as always. He may be somewhat underutilized, but he does fit in well within the world of this film and helps make this film as clearly compelling as it is. The aerial dogfight scenes were amongst Nolan’s best work ever, and the way Hardy’s story ends is visually impressive. Lowden is also given a star-making turn as Collins, and much like the rest of the cast of the film who are somewhat unknowns, Lowden will benefit from a career boost based on his performance here.

I saw this film in IMAX, and it was the first time I thought it was absolutely worth paying the price to see the film. Please believe me that I am not being hyperbolic when I say this is one of the most visually impressive films of the twenty-first century. Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot the absolutely beautiful Her and collaborated with Nolan on Interstellar finally is given the chance to enter himself into the canon of great cinematographers. Never before have the atrocities of war been so unbelievably beautifully-shot. There are moments of genuine awe-inspiring beauty in this film – the color colour, the way in which everything from the complex air sequences to the claustrophobic moments that take place underneath the deck of the boats. Dunkirk is one of the most incredibly-shot films I have ever seen. Nolan and van Hoytema engage in a delicate ballet, bringing this film to life through some unbelievable filmmaking. Just a word of warning: if you see this film in IMAX, beware that this is a very loud film. The sound design in this film is no-holds-barred and often very jarring, but in a unique way. The sounds of explosions and crashes juxtaposed with Hans Zimmer’s score makes for riveting cinema.

Dunkirk gives Nolan the opportunity to rectify two big issues that existed with his previous films – character development and emotion. First of all, Nolan creates characters in other films that aren’t particularly memorable, and other than Heath Ledger’s Joker, most of his characters are forgettable because they feel like objects rather than characters. Dunkirk has characters we can genuinely care about – regardless of who it is that one favours, Dunkirk has a strong cast of characters that are developed enough to allow us to understand them. There aren’t any backstories or external information given, which means that the combination of the writing and the performances serve well to design characters that actually have meaning. The other major problem that Nolan does fix is the way in which his films manage emotion. Most of his other films have included attempts at profound emotion, yet never actually achieving it. Dunkirk is a very emotional film, and thus the audience will connect with these characters and this story. Nolan makes us actually feel something, and that is quite remarkable for a filmmaker that I always thought was unable to portray a single genuine human emotion on screen in a way that seems realisitc. There are several moments in this film that show great emotional resonance, but one in particular sticks out as something truly inspiring – and it brought a tear to my eye. When you see the film, you’ll know exactly which scene I am talking about.

Dunkirk is a great film. It may be a little flawed in places, but they are insignificant enough to be swept away. This is everything a war film should be – complex, beautiful and most importantly, able to show that war is something that shouldn’t be seen as positive. Dunkirk shows all the dangers and perils that come with war, and the effect on the survivor who struggle in their own way, often struggling to re-enter society, or worse still, having to feel guilt for being the one to survive while others died. Dunkirk is a superb film, and it represents and exciting leap forward in the career of Christopher Nolan. I just want to respond to these ideas that Nolan is the next Kubrick, as I have seen so often stated – this is absolutely wrong. Nolan may be inspired by Kubrick, but he is certainly not a successor to him. What Nolan is is a director with his own style and ambitions, and someone who has his own vision. I am not sure where Nolan will go next, but if Dunkirk is anything to say, we should keep a keen eye. He may just surprise us again. Dunkirk is a wonderful film – it is utterly beautiful, the performances are incredible and it contains genuine emotion. Please watch this film – it is an unforgettable experience and one of the few blockbusters that stands out for its pure audacity. It is an amazing film in so many ways and deserves to be seen and praised. Absolutely stunning.

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