Review: Dunkirk | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Dunkirk

Film Editor Patrick Box explains why Dunkirk is the must-see movie of the summer

The last couple times I’ve visited the local multiplex, I’ve had to put up with a seriously irritating audience. People who seemed to find texting, talking, or rustling through their buckets of popcorn for two hours much more engaging than actually watching the film. So I couldn’t help being a bit bummed out by how packed the cinema was as I settled in to watch Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The adverts began, followed quickly by the trailers and the audience showed no sign of quieting down. The BBFC rating came up and the audience still refused to settle, even as the logos passed by and the title screen popped up. However less than five minutes into the film the shooting started, and the audience went quiet and they stayed quiet through the entire 106 minute runtime. This is testament to what Nolan has managed to achieve with Dunkirk, a masterpiece of filmmaking that is sheer nerve-shredding tension from beginning to end.

The film revolves around the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from the titular french sea-town after the disastrous defence of France during World War II. As thousands of British soldiers are trapped on the beach with their backs to the sea, they brave repeated attempts to evacuate all the while being strafed by german aircrafts. Adopting a non-linear narrative the film interweaves three separate stories the first focusing on the soldiers awaiting rescue on the beaches represented by Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy and Harry Styles’ Alex (yes unfortunately THAT Harry Styles).

As is typical with Nolan films it boasts an extraordinarily talented cast

The second centres around Mark Rylance’s civilian sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who takes his yacht across the channel in order to aide the evacuation, whilst the third focuses on RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who attempt to provide cover for the evacuation vessels. It’s a smart trope that doesn’t hijack the movie but continues Nolan’s obsession with time as a storytelling device.

As is typical with Nolan films it boasts an extraordinarily talented cast. Hardcore thespians Mark Rylance and Kenneth Brannah lend gravitas to their roles whilst movie stars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy make it easy for us to identify with their servicemen. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead puts in an admirable performance as the closest the film has to a lead (yes that is correct, he is the lead, despite what the internet seems to think), having to perform the majority of his scenes literally under-fire. And yes, eye-rolling and sighing aside, Harry Styles puts in a solid and believable performance as a soldier so desperate to survive he is willing to make some questionable decisions. However Dunkirk is not a character-driven movie, rather Nolan uses his characters to humanise the history-books. As a result some may find the characters two-dimensional, especially considering several of them remained unnamed.  But if you’re wondering who the star of the show is don’t worry, it’s obvious from the opening shot.

Christopher Nolan has always been a director who’s been given his dues. You’ll struggle to find films more universally loved than Memento, and The Dark Knight. But in recent times it’s become a bit of a trend to give his films a kicking. A lot of people now claim Inception is overrated and there is a definite tendency when it comes to the The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to focus on their flaws above anything else. Many argue the problem with Nolan is that he makes concept movies, so his films lack genuine human character interactions and makes it difficult for the audience to identify with them. That’s an argument; some say it’s wrong (It is!) but when it comes to the craft of filmmaking there are few who can match Nolan.

Dunkirk is cinema in its purest form: spectacle that creates a viscerally emotional response in its audience. Taking cues from 2015s Mad Max: Fury Road the film emphasises visual storytelling and unfolds as more or less a silent film for large swathes of its runtime. As I previously stated this lack of character emphasis may prove divisive but what Nolan has managed to do is capture the atmosphere of the evacuation. Through the eyes of his characters we experience the terror and desperation of their struggles and, whilst not short on heroism, this isn’t a movie about combat or victory. Any moment that looks like it veers towards patriotism is savagely undercut by Nolan. 

Dunkirk is cinema in its purest form: spectacle that creates a viscerally emotional response in its audience

Instead the film possesses a deeply melancholic tone that leads to some truly beautiful visuals such as thousands of soldiers queuing on the beaches as foam and sand bury their dead, or a shivering soldier appearing to us out of the mist perched on the stern of a sunken ship. But these moments of silent reflection are few, the film primarily serves as one relentless set-piece of chaos.

Since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan there has been a silent agreement amongst film makers that the horrors of war can only be depicted in graphic images of dismemberment. The most recent example of this being Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. With Dunkirk Nolan decides to abandon this conceit, steering clear of blood and gore. Again, this may prove divisive for some audiences but personally I believe the film benefits from this decision; rather than lingering on images of horror we skate from one harrowing moment to the next. This is builds a continual sequence of suspense as one narrow escape from death leads immediately into the next danger. This is augmented by Hans Zimmer’s standout score that features prominently the ticking of a watch. Time is as much the enemy as the Germans. This is the main reason why I urge everyone to see the film in IMAX if possible.

The visuals are of course epic, but the sound editing and mixing is something else. Every gunshot sounds like a cannon firing, and the whine of Luftwaffe engines stands alongside the Jaws soundtrack as a masterful tool of inspiring dread. Finally Nolan’s career-long championing of practical effects reaches a whole new level in Dunkirk. The sight of thousands of extras lined up on the mole harkens back to the epic movies of the 50s and 60s, whilst retired naval vessels that actually served in the evacuation were pressed back into service and towed to set. Sequences of CGI are blurred so effectively with reality that it is impossible to say which is which. Aerial dogfights between aircrafts are painstakingly recreated and are more effective than anything you’ll find in a Star Wars film. Dunkirk is, at it’s core, old-school filmmaking but augmented by all the development of cinema of the 21st century. A masterpiece.

Verdict: A triumph of visual storytelling boasting truly incredible direction, sound-design, cinematography, and visual effects. Aided by one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores to date Nolan has crafted a film of pure suspense. If you only see one film this summer make sure it’s Dunkirk.

Rating: 10/10

If Indiana Jones had a kid with Han Solo, I'm the guy who sat behind him in school.


26th July 2017 at 9:00 am

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