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Film Review: Dunkirk

28 July 17 words: Ash Carter

Christopher Nolan's latest effort has been met with fairly universal praise, we take a look to see if it's deserved...

A handful of British soldiers, bedraggled and battle-weary, scramble down a French side street. One by one they are picked off by an invisible enemy, bullets appearing seemingly from nowhere, ripping through flesh and uniform, ruthlessly reducing the group’s already small number. As they struggle to escape down alleys and over fences, they abandon helmets and weapons, the distinction between soldier and boy blurred. From the outset, Christopher Nolan exposes that he is not making a guts and glory, tub-thumping war epic (a promise he almost keeps). This isn’t traditional warfare we’re used to seeing on the big screen. It’s 400,000 demoralised British soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk in a German net that’s slowly closing, their sense of pride and hopes for survival shrinking with it.

Hans Zimmer’s sublime score sets a relentless pace like an anxious heartbeat, rhythmically thumping what feels like a death march for the trapped soldiers. For a successful, mainstream filmmaker, Christopher Nolan is admirably never afraid to challenge audiences with testing narrative structures. Here, we’re presented with three storylines of varying time lengths. Firstly, the 400,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, a narrative that takes place over one week. The second, a single day with a British yacht captained by an excellent Mark Rylance, part of the fleet of civilian vessels commandeered by the Royal Navy to help carry soldiers back across the channel. The third, a solitary hour with spitfire pilot Tom Hardy, running countless sorties across the channel, his ever-decreasing fuel supply etched in frantic chalk writing on his cockpit panels, the result of an earlier dogfight that shattered his fuel gage.

It’s hard not to be impressed with Nolan’s vision. He sacrifices any significant character development in favour of a simple set of characters. Every character we’re presented with has a simple objective: to either survive, or to help others survive. The narrative structure works, but it’s a close run thing. The strength of Dunkirk’s masterful editing helps maintain a sense of order in a structure that could easily descend into chaos. Characters that are plucked from the channel during Plot B are still trapped on the beach half an hour later in Plot A. Whilst the amount of faith Nolan places in his audience is admirable, I feel that more than a few audience members will be left confused. But Nolan has always shown an obsession with time and manipulating audience expectations of conventional narrative structure. With Dunkirk, the sense of time, an ever-present ticking clock supplied by Zimmer’s note perfect score, is a constant, haunting reminder of finality.

Nolan doesn’t allow a single pause for breath

It’s a confusion matched by the characters, who are smashed by wave after wave of unyielding misery, brief flashes of hope swept away by battery after battery of bullets and bombs from land, sea and air. For it’s surprisingly short running time (106 minutes), Nolan doesn’t allow a single pause for breath. Its unconventional structure often adds to the experience, and it is an experience, of the unremitting, barbaric confusion of warfare. Everyone looks the same and nothing makes sense. There’s no hope and no comprehension. Whilst the often nameless, sometimes faceless mass of soldiers offers a fresh perspective of war on the big screen, the lack of any significant, traditional character development arguably does provide a lack of meaningful emotional attachment to characters. Some viewers might find that a bad thing, and fairly so. But it’s also an interesting take on the nature of Dunkirk; this isn’t the story of one or two men trying to get home to their sweethearts, but the story of 400,000 men, desperately trying to live to see the next day.

Above all else, Dunkirk is a remarkable technical achievement. At once sprawling and claustrophobic, it is an enormously complex film clearly planned in painful detail. And it’s a film all about the detail. Described by Nolan as a survival story rather than a war film, Dunkirk is often frustrating in its myopic portrayal of the evacuations. For fans of the war genre, there are no outstanding set pieces, but rather a string of smaller instances of personal struggle. Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles (who for all the hoopla, doesn’t put a foot wrong) young privates trapped on the beach, Mark Rylance, with his young son, civilian rescuers, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s spitfire pilots and Kenneth Branagh’s Admiral Bertram Ramsay all make up a patchwork story, contributing in their own way to the chaos of the Dunkirk evacuations. With that said, there are notable exclusions to Nolan’s trademark eye for detail, most strikingly the modern looking Dunkirk sea front shown from some aerial shots.

Nolan’s foot only lifts from our throat in the closing moments, where it all turns a little Hovis advert-y. Two young soldiers, now safe on a train in England, read Churchill’s famous, rabble-rousing speech as they’re cheered on by an excited public. Branagh’s Ramsay refuses to leave the beach until the French soldiers are safe as well, and Tom Hardy’s spitfire pilot sets fire to his plane, now crashed on a French beach, as blurry dark figures (presumably German soldiers that have thus far remained notably absent from the action) surround him. Elgar’s familiar Nimrod replaces Zimmer’s impeccable score, and what had been a relentless, merciless experience suddenly feels flat. A disappointing after taste to what had been one of the most explosive sensory experiences I’d ever experienced in a cinema.

It’s an aftertaste that left me questioning other arguable flaws in the film that, had a stronger conclusion been presented, would have been overlooked entirely. Was my desire to see Dunkirk present more large scale set pieces simply a result of previous films in the genre? Did Nolan’s narrative structure and lack of character development really work? I suspect it’s a matter of personal opinion. And whilst aspects of Dunkirk might not work from a filmmaking point of view, as a cinema viewing experience, it’s emotional, visceral and astounding.

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