25 July 2017

REVIEW: Dunkirk

Directed & written by Christopher Nolan
Music by Hans Zimmer
UK release date: 21st July 2017
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, Harry Styles

Dunkirk official plot:

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire & France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II. 

S: Dunkirk is a true cinematic experience. Written & directed by Christoper Nolan, this film plunges the viewer straight in to the event. It follows three different narratives on three different temporalities, that intertwine so fluidly: the soldiers on the beach (who wait up to a week) the pilots in the air (an hour) and the civilians at sea (a day). Here's a quote by the genius himself to clarify:

"For the soldiers who embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; even if the story is very simple. Do not repeat it to the studio: it will be my most experimental film." - Christopher Nolan

For this reason I believe the film needs to be seen more than once to fully grasp the narrative structure, but I personally didn't find it incomprehensible or complicated. Because the plot is simple and straight-forward, the choice to have intertwining narratives makes the film even more interesting to watch.

Dunkirk in a few words

Dunkirk is very unlike other war films, or any other films in general. It gives only a few lines of context in the opening sequence and our field of vision is limited to the character's. It is predominantly a visual film, broken up by moments of dialogue: completely immersive, (thanks to the 70mm format) with an omnipresent soundtrack that generates adrenaline, fear and dread.

We only have short, fleeting moments of utter silence, where no clock-ticking or droning noise can be heard - we get so used to this droning soundtrack that the sudden absence of it surprises you. The faultless cinematography interlaced with the rumble of spitfire engines, the clatter of bullets and falling bombs creates a harrowing and poignant cinematic experience.

Although we have very wide angle shots, our vision is limited to what the characters can see. We have no knowledge of what is happening outside of Dunkirk (only those sailing/flying towards it or there) - no Churchill, no Nazis or enemy soldiers (only silhouettes at the end). 

We are shown the sheer scale of the beach and soldiers stuck there, and how close yet far they are away from home. The characters are constantly reaching towards safety, towards escape, yet their attempts are to no avail. They're constantly being drawn back to the beach, simply sitting there like ducks desperately hoping they will be able to board the next Destroyer vessel before the next plane flies over them. It's important to mention that Dunkirk focuses only on the British Army. There is one French soldier in the film, and at the beginning we see french soldiers being told that it's 'English Only' allowed the board the ships. There has been a lot of concern over this topic in terms of lack of representation (not just for the french) however I believe they made this obvious from the beginning that it was about rescuing the British soldiers first. This decision to leave the french behind wasn't glorified in any way, as the lead soldier Tommy expressed 'It isn't fair'.

Nolan took an interesting decision to not show any close-ups of wounds or blood (it's 12 rated!) - yet there were always bodies in the majority of the shots, whether covered up on the sand, floating in the water or poorly buried. Like for the soldiers, the constant presence of death is normalized: the soldiers do not stop to mourn after every dropped bomb - they get back up and carry-on.

A personal approach 

H: The film is unlike any others because the story is very personal, in the sense that it feels like we are plunged directly into the characters space (it almost feels like we are watching someone's memories). All we do is watch. This title can be misleading - we have little or no character development, no backstories, only small hint of personalities - and not a huge amount happens in the film. We just follow character's from one space to another, and their attempts to get to their destination. There is no foreshadowing, no romanticization, none of the usual elements you'd expect to see in most films. In this sense, Nolan's Dunkirk is absolutely an experimental piece. So how does he manage to get us invested in these characters, when we know so little about them?

We got invested because we followed several characters' journeys, almost non-stop, with very few ellipses, for 75 minutes. In films (or series) we usually follow a story that goes on for several days/months, following characters' for several minutes at a time. In Dunkirk, you are following the characters' pretty much non-stop for the duration of the event, all from their point of view alone.
The 70mm format allowed the audience to feel physically present in the moment, with a vast amount of wide establishing shots, long scenes and sequences, and just enough close ups on soldier's faces. We were sharing their dread and misery. Despite a lack of character exploration, Nolan managed to get us invested in their journeys: Because we spent so much time living along-side them for only one specific moment of their lives, it was more intimate. In most films we follow a longer journey, but only minutes at a time (still following?).

S: Most of the characters remain anonymous, we don't know their names or where they come from. We are given no personal details what-so-ever. It's almost as if the soldiers are blank canvases, allowing us to project ourselves on to them. There are all almost completely devoid of personality traits: the are simply people who want to escape.  All the soldiers on the beach are fresh-faced actors, and all fit the appropriate age group. This decision to cast the lead character Tommy as a relatively fresh-faced actor (Fionn Whitehead) reflects the youth and inexperience of the soldiers.

This interesting approach to the Historical event makes the film both captivating and exceptionally heart-breaking. The actors expressions said so much more than their words - all actors gave great performances, simply reacting, speaking with their eyes: a soldier's misery alive on their faces.

Production of a History Film

S: Nolan used very little CGI compared to most war films - the planes and ships were authentic or built especially for this film. This decision not only gives Dunkirk more aesthetically pleasing visuals, but it also gives us the most accurate portrayal of events. The sheer magnitude of the Destroyer vessels, the sound of the Spitfire engines and of course the smaller ships that come to the rescue. It's believable - as it should be, to accurately re-tell such a vital historical event. You simply can not expect to get such raw results with a green screen or fake explosions. There is a beautiful tracking shot of the Moonstone boat passing a Destroyer - showcasing the height of military power against the small, 'week-end sailors' boat. Despite this difference in size, both ships prove to be equally as important to the situation at hand.

Saved by the 'little people'

H: The strength and determination of the little people was the beacon of Hope in Dunkirk. With the scenes onboard the little boat between the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and George (Barry Keoghan) - the impact of War was felt beyond the battlefield, through the eyes of those who had suffered, and those who had come to help. These scenes accurately portrayed the unforgiving nature of Warfare, when tragedy strikes not because of the direct actions of the enemies, but as a result of the situation as a whole.
We can feel the deep relief and gratitude felt towards the common people through the eyes of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), when he spots the army of little boats coming into view on the water. Tears in his eyes, the wave of fresh emotion swept through the audience, continuing on to the end of the film, when the soldiers had finally made their way home.

S: Dunkirk is a waiting-game: harrowing, heart-felt, yet with a touch of hope. Like the soldiers on the beach, we are constantly waiting for something to happen, hoping it all works out, and of course dreading the possibility of another wave of bombs falling on the beach or the Spitfire pilot being unable to stop the enemy plane. It's a relentless, dreadful situation and we're stuck in the middle of it. Dunkirk is not just another war film, it can be considered experimental in terms of film-making, yet it is gripping, awful and heartfelt.

H: I'm sure I'm not alone in stating that the film so strongly pulled on my heart-strings, forcing me to acknowledge the pain and suffering that happened to protect the freedom we so often take for granted. I struggled to hold back the tears.

S: For the first time in my life, the audience all applauded as the credits rolled in. Whether it was for the brilliance of Christopher Nolan's film-making skills or for the patriotism and respect the film brought out, (or both) Dunkirk is absolutely worthy of all the recognition it is getting. And an absolute must-see on the biggest screen you can find.

Holly & Summer

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