Reddit’s favourite director is back with what many are calling his best film yet. And despite people’s tendency to worship Nolan and his oeuvre, he has yet to make a bad film. People have their complaints about parts of his Batman trilogy, and some didn’t care for Interstellar, but the truth is that he might just be one of the most consistent film-makers working today. Or at least he’s interesting. So, is Dunkirk his opus like so many critics are saying?
The film tackles the story of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, in which civilian ships were enlisted to help save thousands of stranded Allied soldiers. The film is a big step away from his previous work. It’s his first film based on historical events, but it it mainly different because of how minimalist it is – there is barely any dialogue and the whole thing isn’t even two hours long. This allows for a tenser atmosphere and also helps the film avoid some Nolan-isms. But it still has his fingerprints all over it. This is mostly because of the non-linear structure, which works for the most part really well, and the great soundtrack by frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer.
The film follows three story strands: the soldiers on the beach, the civilian rescue operation by sea, and the RAF dogfights taking place above. These take place over one week, one day, and one hour respectively. The story could have been told with any number of structures, but this is the one we got and I have to wonder why. For the most part it works fine, but when the stories all come together the film splutters and it all becomes a bit of a mess for a few scenes. The film is definitely the simplest one Nolan has made, and without this structure the film would be almost too simple, so it works if only to make this well-trodden genre feel more original. And it definitely feel like a ‘Christopher Nolan war movie’.
Dunkirk is not like any war movie you’ve seen recently. Firstly it’s almost entirely bloodless yet the horror of the war if almost emphasised by this. The shot of the soldier taking off his helmet and swimming out into the ocean to die (or make a run for home) will stick with people and ensure this film becomes a staple of GCSE History classrooms. The gore of many war films has nothing on the horror of drowning in the dark in a capsized ship or being suddenly picked off by an enemy sniper. But the gore-free way of doing it doesn’t automatically make the film better than a more bloody war movie like Saving Private Ryan, it just makes it different. Which is always welcome.
From a technical standpoint, the film is a masterpiece. There must have been CGI used somewhere but I wouldn’t be able to tell you where, it all looked so real and convincing. I know many people (including myself) scoffed when they heard Nolan was going to use real WWII vehicles for authenticity, but it paid off. There is an excellent shot during a sequence in which one of the destroyers sink, when the camera is flipped on it’s side and we see the water come down on the soldiers like a giant wall. The dogfights are the highlight of the film, and make the air story the best part of the film. The tension goes through the roof in these scenes as the RAF try and take out enemy bombers and fighters.
One downside of Nolan’s drive for authenticity is that we never really get the scale of the evacuation. We are told that there are at least 400,000 men to evacuate, but on the beach we only ever see a couple of thousand. Apparently during production they used cardboard cut-outs to fill out the ranks and make it look like a bigger crowd. These are the moments when Christopher Nolan should have forgotten his artistic integrity and employed the use of some digital wizardry.
The technical side of the film is genius, and the cinematography and soundtrack work together beautifully. But these all come at the expense of fleshed-out characters. This might be an intentional choice by the director, but it doesn’t change the fact that most people like to have a relatable character in a film, or just someone you can connect with. The actors are all superb at screaming and looking terrified, but there’s no other emotion. Harry Styles is actually a decent actor too, but it’s like Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones (though far less smug and annoying), he completely takes you out of the film. He’s far too famous for this role. I refuse to believe that Harry Styles beat the other thousands of actors going for the part. This was a marketing ploy, pure and simple. But, as far as marketing tricks go, at least he can act.
There are a few moments of more human drama. One excellent scene see’s the young soldiers having to decide who to throw out of a boat to lighten the weight. This scene is cut with scenes from the other plot strands, and it’s here where this structure is used to heighten tension that it really works. A less successful scene is on the civilian boat, with Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy. An accident on board requires one the young actors to show extreme emotion, but it’s just awful, bordering on truly annoying.
Dunkirk does a great number of things successfully. Most surprising of all it got me to actually like Mark Rylance and his “I’m so humble” routine he does in everything. I really enjoyed the scenes with him and Cillian Murphy as the tortured soldier. The film also has the most exciting aerial scenes I’ve ever seen, and the action feels real and horrible. The ending of the film is also perfectly touching, and deals with the guilt these soldiers felt for what they saw as losing and running away.
All of this excellent work means the characters suffer however, and this might not even be an issue for you. The film is brilliant in conveying the horrifying and numbing effects of combat and warfare and that might be enough for a lot of people seeking a purely visual experience. If that is you then I promise you will not be disappointed. But if it isn’t, you might come out of the film and realise that you didn’t really care for any of the characters and that something was missing.
Overall, Dunkirk is perfect is areas but sadly lacking in others. It is no doubt a case of it not living up to the great hype. But just this year Baby Driver was equally built up and then easily surpassed that hype for me. I think I expected something a bit different from Christopher Nolan. I want big ideas and I want to think about it for days after I’ve seen it. Like Interstellar, even if is often a bit messy it has things to talk about. Despite it’s structure Dunkirk was a little too simple and bare bones for me.
From a purely technical standpoint I highly recommend seeing it as soon as possible on the biggest and loudest screen you can find. Just don’t expect any real depth.
Reviewed by Jack