Christopher Nolan is the rare filmmaker who consistently inspires cinéastes and mainstream audiences alike. His new film, Dunkirk, is further proof of his ability to balance spectacle with pathos.
The events and experiences of Dunkirk are seen from three perspectives: i. The Mole (land), ii. The Sea, iii. The Air. Until their inevitable intersection, this triptych of narratives is alternated between, each situation growing in urgency and tension. At the centre of each thread, though, is humanity. The sentiment is pure and raw; these men are fighting for their survival, for their families, for their homeland. We may not know much about them, but we understand what drives them in the moment. Nolan’s focus on the personal, amidst destruction on a massive scale, provides realism and grit to his film. When a destroyer is sunk by a torpedo, we are amongst the crew, submerged and drowning in the hold, rather than spectating from above or marvelling at explosions and effects.
In the opening sequence, we see British infantry walking through Dunkirk’s streets, showers of propaganda falling on them from the sky, like confetti. The leaflets show an isolated patch on the French coast labelled ‘You’, surrounded on all sides by the red expanse of Axis territory. Without a word spoken we understand the situation, the threat, and the unimaginable stakes. The dialogue in Dunkirk is sparse; there are no throwaway conversations. Instead, we simply observe the characters as they make their journeys and the narrative is largely driven by the visuals, similar to the techniques used in silent films or programmes made for young children. When you see the fear in Kenneth Branagh’s eyes – or the turmoil in Tom Hardy’s for that matter – you really don’t need to be told what they are feeling. The silence is all the more disquieting. For me, the lack of dialogue evokes images from real-life archive footage of WWII horrors. Whether deliberate or not, those associations make viewing all the more real and disturbing.
I have to say that the viewpoint from the sea, that of a civilian vessel travelling to rescue troops from the beaches, is noticeably the weakest of the three stories. Until the finale, it feels like it’s killing time and manufacturing drama. Moreover, the lack of any substantive female characters could easily have been remedied in this portion considering many civilian women did brave the same journey. Did everyone on that boat need to be male?
Although I experienced a digital projection of this movie, there is no mistaking that it was originally shot on film (65mm IMAX no less!). The texture and grain that comes with celluloid provide an indispensable period look – war and history pictures are the most likely to still be shot on film. Dunkirk is also a display of the merits of practical filmmaking. A computer can not yet create the authenticity that comes from real Spitfires actually being flown over the English Channel, or the terror-inducing whine of a Stuka dive-bombing a crowded beach. DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Let the Right One In, Her) had quite a task on his hands, but while the cinematography was captured in a ground-breaking way, the style is classical so as not to distract from the unfolding events. Equally impactful is the score from long-time Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer. The motif of a ticking watch occurs throughout and is reflected in the rhythmic progression of the score. Suspense is built as the music escalates until the viewer is completely immersed, assaulted on all sides by visuals and sound design and vibration.
Nolan has always been a writer and director fascinated with the concepts of time and non-linear narrative. These innovations are used to great effect in this latest outing, where he weaves an involving timeline which ratchets up the tension from the get-go. The cast delivers across the board and as a film it succeeds in that rarest of things: to be epic and to be slim. Dunkirk is visceral filmmaking at its most grand and its most personal.
Verdict: 17,558/19,012 Nazi Propaganda Leaflets