22nd Jul2017

‘Dunkirk’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard | Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk-poster

On paper, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Interstellar couldn’t be more different to the puzzle boxes which have defined his movies to date. Here’s a real historic event portrayed in well under two hours, with no room for sci-fi elements or high concept hooks. That it feels, in the end, very much like you’ve watched a Christopher Nolan film is surprising, for reasons both pleasing and not-so-pleasing.

We’re thrown into the nightmare of 1940, when more than 300,000 British Expeditionary Force troops were trapped on the titular beach, with the German hordes moving in. (In one of the film’s many authentic touches, we get to see the German propaganda leaflets promising the Allies’ imminent destruction.)

Three stories – and here’s where the narrative is Nolanised. “The Mole” covers a week on the beaches with the troops, focusing on Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), along with a couple of other privates (Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles), desperately trying to hitch a ride home on one of the few military boats able to moor at the makeshift jetty. “The Sea” is a day in the life of Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) as they make their way across the Channel in a fishing boat, having heeded the civilian call from the Navy. Finally, “The Air” covers an hour with Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of a handful of RAF pilots dogfighting across the channel with a dwindling tank of gas.

In a conceit which is in equal doses elegant and baffling, the stories gradually converge, and the characters come into contact in a dramatic finale. The use of concurrent action scenes is an editing technique Nolan has used frequently, and always to varying success. Except with Dunkirk we’re also having to compete with the fact that events may be happening at entirely different times, so a character who is hopelessly shellshocked in one scene may be entirely chipper in the next. It’s a clever construction, but I’m not sure it’s the optimum structure to provide tension or drama.

Although it can’t avoid all the war movie clichés (Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, yearning for a sign of “Home”, delivers most of those), Nolan’s film is admirably committed to providing unusual and memorable images: Prone bodies on the beach, maybe sleeping or maybe dead; a returning warship passing by a tiny fishing vessel en route to the war on the horizon; a dead-engine Spitfire gliding silently across the sky; a soldier attempting to “walk” back to Britain.

Indeed, given Nolan’s previous propensity for Basil Exposition, there is a refreshing lack of it throughout. By all accounts the anecdotal details are historically accurate. This is a survival movie, so politics are backgrounded. However, given the unique circumstances – the UK Government feared weakening Britain’s defences by sending their destroyers on a rescue mission – we might have expected more than a throwaway line rationalising the top brass.

If there’s one colossal, all-encompassing flaw in the movie, it’s Hans Zimmer’s music. Screeching, thunderous, industrial, soaring… And it always sounds wrong. Remember the terrifyingly spare bit from the teaser trailer with the sound of the dive bomber as it approaches the cowering troops? Forget about it. It seems no scene in the finished movie is complete without Zimmer’s repetitive, overbearing score.

This is a composer who, with a sense of adventure and worldliness, turned Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line into cinematic poetry. Here, though, the music is one-note: relentless, rising tension. One could argue that Dunkirk is dealing with a narrower story than Malick’s. But this does a disservice to Nolan, who is delivering more nuanced dramatic notes than Zimmer’s score would have us believe. The only semblance of melody is a punishing quarter-speed rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod.

It’s a pity because the music is in competition with the sound design, which is astonishingly powerful. Whether it’s the nerve-wracking vibrations of the Spitfire cockpit, the teeth-shattering roar of a torpedo explosion, or the deafening clang of bullets piercing a boat hull, I would be very surprised if Dunkirk weren’t a frontrunner at the Academy Awards.

The dialogue itself isn’t quite up to the same standard. International audiences may struggle with the heavy British accents, but they aren’t missing a whole bunch. Dunkirk firmly belongs in the ‘war experience’ sub-genre, shared with the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and the gold standard-bearer, Come and See. Those movies did a considerably better job of sketching their characters’ backgrounds and wishes and prejudices – but then, they also took an additional hour each to do so.

The best war movies will place interesting conflicts and micro-dilemmas into the context of the greater war being portrayed, and this is reliant to an extent upon careful character-building. But Dunkirk is all about the intensity of the specific situations the characters are in, rather than the characters themselves.

When it comes to portraying that intensity, a couple more issues arise. First, the decision to target a 12A certificate means that the action is strangely bloodless. Perhaps Nolan is relying on our knowledge of other, more gruesome war films to fill in the blanks here. Second, we basically never see the enemy; and moreover, we are never given a clear idea of enemy movements, or their positions relative to the BEF troops. While we share the soldiers’ fear of an unknown menace – the wail of the incoming bomber – the lack of clarity denies us the feeling of a tightening noose.

As might be expected from a largely unknown cast mixed with a few evergreens, the performances are variable. I’m sure it was a deliberate choice to eschew a standout hero, although Rylance brings his reliable avuncular charm to the role of the fearless fisherman. Branagh breezes it in the part of the Commander – a lot of standing in the cold and looking concerned. The younger actors fare less well, with Glynn-Carney and Styles in particular coming off as TV-standard.

Hoyte von Hoytema, who worked with Nolan on Interstellar also, renders some astonishing cinematography. The compositions unashamedly reach for epic significance and frequently inspire awe. Combined with minimal use of CG, the film manages to find an effective balance between the grim, ramshackle reality of mid-century soldier life and the mighty sweep of the grand military operation.

Dunkirk is a fine and very handsome war film, but the combination of minor flaws (the convoluted structure; the dialogue) and a few major ones (the musical score) means that, overall, it falls short of the greatness for which its cinematography and sound design strive. As a survival experience, it can be riveting, if occasionally frustrating. On the general truths of war – duty, humanity, inhumanity, pride, doubt, leadership, violence, oppression – I feel like Matt Reeves’ Apes movie has more to say on the subject.

Dunkirk is out in cinemas now.

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