Dunkirk Movie Review
IMDB 8.8 – Rotten Tomatoes 92% – Metacrtic 94 – Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles.
The most anticipated film of 2017, and one that is widely heralded as an early Oscar shot in the critical community is now in theatres. Written and Directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan, this film was always going to come with high expectations, but was it ever in doubt that he would clear the bar with room to spare? To set the scene, the film depicts the events at Dunkirk in May 1940 as Germany advances into France, trapping British and French forces on the beaches of Dunkirk as they try to evacuate. As many as 800 civilian boats made the sail across the English channel to support the evacuation, saving hundreds of thousands of lives in what was, despite the catastrophic military defeat, one of the most inspiring events in British military history.
Much of the hype around this WW2 epic has been resultant from the impressive cast assembled, the stand outs of which for me are Fionn Whitehead and Tom Hardy. The buzz around Harry Style’s role in this movie while understandable will, I fear, distract from the singularly unanticipated performance of other relative newcomer Fionn. With so much non-verbal exasperation on display as he finds himself in one desperate situation after another, Fionn carries so much of this film without saying a word (Full disclosure, I might have become more invested in his character because he’s the spitting image of Kieran Tierney….). Similarly with Tom Hardy, much of the performance is understated but so powerfully effective in maintaining and escalation a tension that becomes captivating to the viewer. Harry Styles was fine, hes good for a guy who isn’t an actor but I worry that the focus on him eclipses a lot of the art in this movie and so will swiftly attempt to sweet the narrative away from him, there were 5 better performances in this movie. Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance all excellent in supporting roles and all possibly underutilised to varying degrees.
The way this story is told in this movie is somewhat unconventional in a way that is slightly confusing at a glance, with 3 different narrative threads of different lengths coming together to knot at the end. The Beach narrative lasts a week, the sea narrative lasts a day and the air narrative lasts an hour and all converge at the end for the film’s inspirational climax. Perhaps a ploy to simulate the chaos of these events, or an effort to dazzle the viewer to a story we are already familiar with, it runs the risk of being inaccessible to the average viewer.
The key feature of this movies impact was the incredible use of sound throughout, mischievously pointed out by Rylance’s character as he comments on the unmistakable sound of the Spitfire engine. The booming creak of metal as ships are sunk, the shattering ricochet of bullets, the shrill buzz of planes zooming past and most impactful and terrifying of all, the horrific screech of the Ju 87 Stuka as it swoops the beaches of Dunkirk. These incredible sounds are compiled to create a sensory onslaught that fully immerses the audience in the terror of these events. You miss a significant dimension of this movie by not watching it in the cinema, making sound editing far and away the obvious potential pick up for Christopher Nolan at the 2018 Oscars, and that’s without any mention of this films excellent and uplifting score composed by Hans Zimmer!
If I could mention one potential detractor for this otherwise masterful and artful production, then it would probably be the lack of scale in key moments in the film. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the climax of this movie is the arrival of the civilian fleet at Dunkirk to rescue our pinned down soliders but when that crescendo finally arrives we see about 8 boats rather than 800. Nolan seems to have sacrificed the scale of this moment in favour of using real footage rather than CGI, and as a viewer I was conscious that the moment wasn’t big enough. The decision to keep the production authentic and realistic stretches to the air too, with only 3 planes in shot at any given time. It comes over as minimalist, but does the enhanced art in the technical production give Nolan a better chance at picking up silverware in the long run? We hasn’t about to win any writing awards anyway….
Overall this film is exceptionally moving in its depiction of these incredibly inspiring true events and the skill in how the movie is crafted is obvious to see. To place it in a contemporary context we need might be tempted to compare this with Hacksaw Ridge, and while that film is also amazing edges Dunkirk in writing and with Garfield’s lead performance, Dunkirk represents a far more artful composition. Perhaps I’m caught up in the revelry of the first truly excellent epic of the new Oscar season, but this films edges 5 stars for me. Definitely watch this in the cinema for full effect.
I can’t help but notice the political climate in which movies like Dunkirk and Churchill are being released to remind us of what Britain can be, so let’s not allow that to distract us from what a disaster Brexit is gearing up to be!