Dunkirk presents us with the best and the worst of Christopher Nolan. That is to say, it’s good until it isn’t – but when it’s good it’s damn unstoppable. Thrilling, beautiful, and awe-inspiring; it’s an accomplished work in 70mm – but I find it impossible to deny that there are problems with tone, character building, and predictability. As a result, Dunkirk is one of the finest war movies of the 21st century, but it doesn’t have a patch on earlier classics such as Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.
We follow three disparate stories throughout the film – elementally named ‘The Air (1 hour)’, ‘The Water (1 day)’, and ‘The Mole (1 week)’. The times are there as an early warning that, although these stories will be intercut with one another, they are not happening at the same time or rate.
Within these stories, we follow three very different groups of people aiding in the effort to get as many of the 400,000 British troops stuck in France back home as possible. These are a collection of soldiers who are trying desperately to escape; a trio of weekend sailors who command their ship into oblivion to save their countrymen; and a duo of RAF spitfire pilots, who struggle with low fuel reserves and no backup to eliminate the German dive-bombers. It’s not exactly a happy ride, but one gets the feeling that the aim was to show the realities of survival rather than some overall military goal.
One would be forgiven for using the term ‘intimate’ to describe what is essentially a montage of prolonged Biblical chaos. And yet, despite the large-scale destruction, the lens is almost always focused on the faces and bodies of the protagonists. With about 8 ‘main’ characters to deal with, that’s a whole lot of story-switching. This plays to Dunkirk’s advantage, so that minimal exposition or dialogue slows the pace, and heart-stopping action takes precedence over all.
In spite of the limited spoken material available for the actors to work with, it’s pleasing to report that they do a great job of selling the story at hand. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles give fantastically physical and fluid performances as Tommy (get it?) and Alex respectively, with the latter even providing some emotionally powerful and driven lines in one of Dunkirk’s tensest scenes. Although the casting of Styles to some extent takes us out of the action when he first appears, his performance is incredibly impressive and bodes well for a future in front of the camera rather than behind a mic.
Mark Rylance is convincingly conflicted as Mr. Dawson, a weekend sailor who takes his son and young helper out to sea to engage in conflict. Even Kenneth Branagh, an actor who I find to be consistently over-dramatic and ‘fake’, gives an iconic performance as Commander Bolton: a weathered and stoic, yet humble, military leader who stations himself at the end of the Mole to observe the symphonic disaster. Tom Hardy’s role, in terms of acting, is little more than a cameo (he spends the vast majority of the movie behind a flight mask) but his wonderfully expressive eyes, and chillingly ambiguous final scene make it a damn good cameo nonetheless. Cillian Murphy’s role as a disturbed soldier also deserves particular praise as an intense, unhinged performance.
But here’s the most important thing to note about Dunkirk: visually, it’s stunning. Nolan gives the fuck-you to CGI that we’ve come to expect from top-tier mega-budget productions, and aside from one or two shots I failed to notice anything that didn’t look completely genuine.
Dunkirk really feels like it’s all about the sea, and the colour blue is something that Nolan has taken upon himself to perfect. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen so many shades of it in such a short period of time – and at multiple moments I had to pause just to take in the sheer beauty of his framing amidst the savagery of war on show. Because of the screwing around with time, we also get no end of spectacular sunsets, and menacing waterborne night-time nightmares that are just as stunning as they are horrifying.
The shots of violence are suitably impressive – which is a shame, given their emotional impotency (more on that later): bombs fall in a straight line towards our protagonists, missing them by meters and sending other soldiers flying. In one particularly incredible scene, a long pier is shattered by a dive-bomber; with the troops ricocheting off the railings on either sides in almost matter-of-fact horror. Nolan shoots the scene in Kubrickian symmetry, with the pier extending to the vanishing point of the screen: beauty and savagery collide in one hopeless moment. Of course, the sea itself is both a saviour and a danger to the soldiers, and we’re constantly reminded of the destructive powers of nature. There’s really a sense of insane panic as rooms rapidly fill with pressurised, freezing water – threatening to overwhelm people who, just seconds earlier, had felt safe. These scenes are, undoubtedly, the hardest hitting of the film: brutal, unflinching, and expertly realised.
If you can, you need to see this one in 70mm. There’s been debate recently, some of it a hangover from The Hateful Eight, as to whether projection is really a better experience than digital. And, to my mind, undoubtedly the answer is yes – the chasm is as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. For a start, the texturing and process visible on top of the movie, combined with the occasional flicker, adds a physical dimension to the experience that’s equivalent to the crackle of vinyl on a turntable. It’s a constant reminder of the craft of a movie, and adds a distinctive character that complements the footage perfectly. It has a weight, and an unexplainable authenticity that digital projection can never match: feeling somehow alive and organic. And, of course, the old-world atmosphere that’s generated from these imperfections goes perfectly with a movie set in 1940.
But it’s not just the grain of projection that makes a 70mm screening a must: the footage simply looks stunning. Nolan clearly filmed Dunkirk with a variety of formats, and it’s pretty clear which one he’s using by the intensity of the image on screen. There’s a lot of IMAX 70mm, which looks beautifully grandiose; but when he switches into standard 70mm, the screen turns into a stunningly realistic painting. The colours are sharper, lines more intense, and the fuzz of projection makes it look as if an artist has worked individually on every frame. I’ll also let you into a little secret – the imperfections of 70mm mask the imperfections of CGI, making the movie look more genuine in the process.
Hans Zimmer’s score, thankfully, takes more of a back-seat to the action than his poor work on Interstellar – and it blends in far more efficiently with the grinding gears and clashing metal of a warzone. Propellers, explosions, and gunfire are all skilfully inserted into the music, although I feel the mixing lacks the punch it could have. The addition of a ticking clock noise that permeates the score is also a genius, if little obvious, idea. In the moments where the tension begins to flag, this noise is always able to pick it back up again, and deliver the thrilling experience that fans are looking for. When it, eventually, stops, one can almost feel the atmosphere lift in an instant.
All this is aided by the fact that the film is, quite simply, thrilling. As with Mad Max: Fury Road or The Raid, it’s just one long, extended set piece that ramps up the action until it reaches its eventual conclusion. Througout, there’s an oppressive atmosphere: war is sinister, and Zimmer’s work highlights the menace and fear that these soldiers would be experiencing as they desperately try to escape oncoming death from all sides. There’s a tangible thrill to watching our characters jump, glide, shoot, and sail all over the French seaside for an hour and a half.
Dunkirk is clearly a great movie: it’s a cinematic marvel; an acting masterclass; and a technical masterpiece. Watching it in 70mm is like watching a beautiful, dangerously thrilling painting evolve in front of your eyes – and it’s complemented by a thunderous score that blends seamlessly into the action. But it’s not perfect by any means: it has issues with tone, tension, and character that, unfortunately, cannot be overlooked.
Firstly, it lacks the edge it deserves. Much has been said about Nolan’s controversial PG-13 choice, and the director himself has assured cinemagoers that the rating suits the story he wants to tell, but the fact is, it doesn’t. I’m not asking for Saving Private Ryan here, but if you’re going to be having soldiers blown up directly in front of the camera for extended periods of time, then you need to show some realism. Dunkirk is aiming for that elusive spectre we call ‘immersion’, so to have people blown up only to either hit the ground again in one undamaged piece or disappear completely into thin air really takes you out of the moment – constantly reminding the audience of the artifice in front of their eyes. The only reason for this is money-grabbing (which should come as no surprise to those versed in cinema politics). In no way does it serve the film itself; but it does make the content more accessible by a younger audience – which I don’t really see as a valid motivation.
Additionally, there’s an unexplainable safety to some of the scenes that should be filled with unhinged mayhem. In one segment, a pilot tries to escape the cockpit of a slowly sinking plane as a group of rescuers simultaneously attempt to reach him and pull him from the depths. This scene should be ass-clenchingly, teeth-grittingly tense – but it’s not. It appears engineered for the pilot to eventually be rescued last minute – and, as a result, genuine fear of death evaporates. Sure, the tick-tock sound in the background keeps it consistently thrilling and exciting, but if Nolan was able to take a few more narrative risks in his movie, then I think we’d have something that was genuinely nerve-shredding. Unfortunately, this is a sentiment that applies to many of the set pieces: there’s a lot of indiscriminate death, but the people that we care about always feel too safe for the audience to feel the kind of raw, untamed suspense that we see in say Green Room or Wait Until Dark.
It also, on top of this, begins to unravel in its third act into an over-sentimental, schlocky, and generic heap of patriotic sludge, soundtracked to the groan-inducing strings of Nimrod. Of course, we know how the events of Dunkirk ended – that is to say ‘positively’ – but we must remember, too, that not only was it a colossal military disaster, but almost a quarter of those trapped were not able to be evacuated. At two or three points, Nolan tries to hammer in the horror of loss in war by dispensing with characters we at least know something about. But he ultimately settles on a typically mushy ending which just doesn’t suit the rest of the film at all.
I feel like it’s worth mentioning that almost the entirety of Dunkirk focuses on a group of middle/upper class, attractive, clean-faced, well-dressed, and well-spoken men who carry-out their duty with grim determination, and a patriotically cold stare. The cast is one homogeneous entity, with little actual character development and none of the wry working-class soldier grit and humour which was far more commonly found. In addition the French, despite their large significance in Dunkirk, are avoided – which is odd (though this was never a particularly historical recounting). Some have criticised Nolan for appearing cold because of this, and to some extent I agree. But, ultimately, the lack of dialogue is down to the characters’ damaged psyches and will to survive. I don’t think you’ll be able to emotionally connect with them beyond primal instinct, but, at the same time, I don’t think there’s much that can be done about that.
That’s a whole lot of information to take in and weigh, but it’s vital to note that all the most important stuff here is done to perfection: the visuals, the action, the dialogue, and the acting. I suspect that in a few years’ time, we won’t hold Dunkirk to be the flat-out masterpiece it’s currently being touted as, but for now it’s a fantastic piece of pure cinema that you’re gonna want to see in 70mm or IMAX. It’s a defining piece of 21st Century war filmography – reflecting the relentless cinematic onslaught we’ve come to expect from boundary-pushing blockbusters in the last five or so years. Bold, thrilling, and indescribably beautiful, it’s a stunning ride that’ll leave you breathless.
Featured image: Hamlet Hub.