A return to form for Christopher Nolan…
Christopher Nolan has always been an exciting director. His films are without fail a visual treat, and his insistence on more practical effects is as refreshing as his stories are engaging. That said, as of late I have found myself growing a little cold towards Nolan’s films. That is to say, his more recent films, The Prestige and Memento are as brilliant now as they were years ago. The Dark Knight was so good that is was perhaps inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises, by virtue of coming after such a film would disappoint. After that came Interstellar, a spectacularly shot film with some great performances, and yet the story didn’t seem quite up to scratch. In particular, the fact that the film resolves itself by having the power of love overcome all just felt lazy, and no matter how you choose to phrase it that is what happened.
However, I’m happy to say that Nolan is back up to standard with Dunkirk. This is an exquisitely made war drama, that successfully showcases the confusion of conflict and the horrors that everyday people went through during the battle of Dunkirk, and although there are a few issues, overall, I thought it was a stirring experience.
First things first, the story structure. Making a war film always comes with a few problems. How do you keep your protagonist alive without making it painfully obvious that they aren’t in real danger? The solution in this case is to create a constant level of tension that only occasionally lets up. Nolan uses a pattern. The characters will manage to escape a deadly encounter, and find a sanctuary. Convinced they are safe, they and we as the audience let our guard down, and disaster will strike. This happens multiple times in the film, but rather than getting boring, it manages to keep us on our toes, wondering which characters will make it out in one piece. Hans Zimmer shines here too, he uses high pitched repetitious music to keep the tension building. Every time the music increases in pitch we grow a little more worried. Its remarkably similar to way Zimmer used high pitched music in The Dark Knight.
The film follows several different characters as they go through various fronts of the battle. Nolan does something unusual with the structure in this film. Rather than one linear narrative, we jump forward and back in time randomly depending on which character we are with, almost like Pulp Fiction. This non-linear narrative means we are not always sure when things are happening in relation to the other characters, although it becomes clearer towards the end of the film. Oddly enough this is makes the film stronger, as it creates a sense of confusion, which brings us closer to the characters. We are almost forced into their shoes, unsure of what is happening around us.
Speaking of characters, this film has quite a few to keep up with. There is an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy, two soldiers on the beach trying to get home, played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles… for some reason. There is also a navy officer overseeing the disaster played by Kenneth Branagh and finally, we have an older man and his son sailing to Dunkirk, who rescues a soldier with PTSD played by Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy. All of these (yes even Harry Styles) do a fine job presenting these characters, but the stand outs to me were Mark Rylance and Fionn Whitehead. Most of the rest of the cast are good, but often don’t get enough screen time or presence to really shine (with the exception of Cillian Murphy who is always damn near perfect). Rylance does an amazing job showing the quiet patriotism this man has and his heroism in going to Dunkirk himself to pick up wounded soldiers. He represents the working men who did their bit during the war, even if they couldn’t fight themselves, and Rylance’s nuanced, yet reserved portrayal was a stand out.
The other actor who deserves a mention is Fionn Whitehead. He plays a young soldier trying desperately to get home, and one of the key aspects of his performance is his physical performance. He doesn’t have many lines in the film, but the emotion he portrays in his eyes and expressions is very genuine. The fear, desperation, and determination his situation creates is very clear on his face and I look forward to seeing him in more films in the future.
The effects as always with Christopher Nolan, were spectacular and the lack of unnecessary CG kept the realistic tone needed. However, what detracted from the tone was a complete lack of gore, which in a war film is quite noticeable. There were several points when something was exploding or on fire, and no one seemed to be hurt. One man was in the middle of a fiery explosion and he looked like he was getting a sun-burn. However, this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, and the beautiful cinematography, especially the amazing dogfights, more than made up for it. This is an incredibly shot film with a decent story and some really emotional moments and I definitely recommend it.