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Dunkirk movie review: Christopher Nolan’s terrific, Kubrickian war film

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In the cinema where I watched writer/director Christopher Nolan’s breathtakingly intense new film, the WWII action-drama Dunkirk, the sound was loud. I mean, loud. Utterly, staggeringly, face-meltingly loud. At one point, as Nolan whooshed planes above his characters’ heads for the nth-hundredth time, I wondered whether it might be unrealistically noisy: that is, whether war in real life was actually significantly quieter than the bone-perforating clamour blasting out of the speakers.

I left in a stupor. And I found myself returning to one the following day, when a friend completely threw me by asking the simple question of what I thought of Tom Hardy’s performance. Hardy co-stars as Farrier, a Spitfire pilot. But answering that question isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Hardy not only has to deal with the commotion around him, but the fact that his character is strapped into the aircraft’s oxygen system. This means that when he speaks, a Bane-like effect makes precise enunciation of syllables impossible. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the near-constant roar and thunder of Hans Zimmer’s abstract, electrifying score, relied upon by Nolan so intensely the film could have been billed as a Nolan/Zimmer co-production – and nobody would have batted an eyelid.

So what was Hardy like? Very good. I think. Given his tinny, machine-ified voice would have been recorded in post-production, and given the actor sat in a small plane for almost the entire running time (as he did in a car for 2013’s Locke) Hardy’s performance comprises a series of head movements: left and right, and, yes, for a bit of dramatic range, up and down. Again, tough one to judge.

“Nolan finds a different, non blood-splattered path, engaged more by consequences than processes of war.”

The film itself, however, is quite obviously going straight to the pool room. Nolan’s tenth – and best – feature is a rare example of a non-linear structure that dovetails between three alternate periods of time, without a trace of wit or self-consciousness about it (unlike the chopped-up Tarantino caper, for example, ostentatiously scrambling the jigsaw then putting the pieces together). Arrive late and you might not even notice the timelines are distinct, such is the fluidity of Nolan and the work of his Australian editor Lee Smith.

Farrier’s portion transpires over one hour. It is May 1940 and he is in the air while hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, such as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles, a member of the boy band One Direction) are stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, hoping to evacuate. Their story takes place over a week. They are so close to England they can almost see it; thus, famously, fishing boats make a long journey to pick them up – including one captained by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), whose story takes place over one day.

In recent decades, directors such as Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson – through their films Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge – upped the stakes of cinematic war porn, with unbearably gruesome, guts-spilling, voyeuristic visions of fluid and limb-riddled stink and shit, leaving viewers appreciative of their showmanship but wary of the genre. Where do you go from there? As Terrence Malick did in 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Nolan finds a different, non blood-splattered path, engaged more by consequences than processes of war.

There are some startling sets and set pieces, the lion’s share of the running time taking place on the water and in the sky. Rylance (who won an Oscar last year for his performance in Bridge of Spies) is unforgettable as the fair dinkum Brit, resolved to help sans a sense of chivalry or histrionics; credit that as much to Rylance as Nolan’s writing and direction. There’s also Kenneth Branagh, as Commander Bolton: a performance almost entirely geographically relegated to a pier.

Dunkirk, however, is an ensemble piece, at least in terms of its actors. I say that because the film has two great performances: one from Hans Zimmer and the other from Nolan.

“Dunkirk is a film that evokes memories of New Hollywood – the period that, from 1967 to 1980, marks the last truly great movement in American cinema.”

The former’s startling contribution can be unpacked in detail elsewhere, with word counts more liberal than mine. The latter can be explained this way. Nolan (whose films include Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige) is one of few living, bona fide auteurs who have not just maintained, but grown their authorial style, as budgets and box office have spiralled to the heavens.

There’s a reason Edgar Wright, another auteur, in recent years bowed out of directing the superhero film Ant-Man: he knew the studio would force the creation of their movie, not his. Just as they did with filmmaker Patty Jenkins, who, following the excellence of her unflinching 2004 biodrama Monster, was forced to toe the multinational party line with Wonder Woman – a vision steamrolled by the machine, distinguished in areas (i.e. casting) that have little to do with a director’s authorship.

Nolan, like Stanley Kubrick before him, got the keys to the kingdom. This is the sort of name we should now be associating him with. In style, charge and temperament, and dismissal of hackneyed moth-eaten narratives pedalled by government and institution, Dunkirk is a film that evokes memories of New Hollywood – the period that, from 1967 to 1980, marks the last truly great movement in American cinema.

Zimmer’s score, while one of the film’s greatest assets, is also the source of my only criticism. It is so overwrought, so thickly and extensively applied, virtually every scene is pitched at a moment of near-crisis, the entire experience hanging in the nanosecond when the fuse has burned out but the explosion is yet to go off. That bang is rarely realised; the smoker’s tomorrow that never arrives.

On the other hand, reliance on the score is so unerring it gives Dunkirk a near experimental status. To play in this kind of sandpit, with a vision so utterly distinctive – that’s something worth celebrating. See it in the cinema, if you can, and come prepared. Because it’s loud. Really, really loud.

8 responses to “Dunkirk movie review: Christopher Nolan’s terrific, Kubrickian war film

  1. Christopher Nolan does indeed deserve the comparison to Kubrick, (Full Metal Jacket) there are some truly incredible scenes in Dunkirk that invade the senses (eyes and ears combined). That it is one of Nolan’s shortest films says something in that it certainly doesn’t drag into sit-numbing territory that many of his other films have strayed towards. The one scene that is on constant rewind in my mind after watching it is the soldier walking into the sea ending his life, we witness it with three other soldiers sitting on the beach wondering if they will make it home. Nolan has upped the ante as one of modern cinema’s clearly gifted, unique and compelling story teller’s/director’s and I await with sheer excitement where he will all take us next with his extraordinary talent behind the camera. He is arguably without peer at present, an amazing cinema experience worth watching again, again and again. Truly sublime cinema, miss it on the big screen at your peril.

  2. Just saw this – it’s very good indeed. However, the score is overwhelming to the point of distraction. I kept hoping for some respite, but it doesn’t ever stop. I will buy the Blu-Ray and enjoy it at home, with the volume turned low!

  3. “I wondered whether it might be unrealistically noisy: that is, whether war in real life was actually significantly quieter than the bone-perforating clamor blasting out of the speakers. I left in a stupor. ”
    Luke old boy, your above comment is typical of one who has never been personally involved in an in your face, head, heart, and soul life or death in a second event referred to as a full on battle in war. Because if you had been in such your comment above would have been something along the lines of, “while the attempt by sound engineers to recreate the actual multi sensory horror of a war battle such as depicted in Dunkirk was valiant, the creation and sensation of sound in a theater has absolutely no comparison to the total sensory shock a body experiences when immersed in a full on pitched war battle.” Luke, what I would encourage you to is to go find yourself a war. No, hot an urban door to door event. A Dunkirk WWII full up war where the goal is to for both sides to kill everything that moves. Put yourself in the middle of such, and only then will you maybe be qualified to even make comments regarding war.

    1. Well he obviously isn’t sceptical and unappreciative of how intense and loud war is, he is just in wonder and amazement in how loud the movie is. I don’t know how you can get offended at that unless you are in the mood to be outraged.

  4. I look forward to this film with great anticipation. I’ve grown up hearing the stories of how my grandad won his DCM in the lead up to the Dunkirk evacuation. Pinned down by machine gun fire, his company was unable to reach the beach. So he led an action to destroy the gun with grenades, rescuing his men. Hats off to their bravery. May we never again have to witness the horrors they faced.

  5. A thoughtful review. I will see it this weekend. But I am not so sure about Zimmer’s work. It is so stentorian. After Interstellar I labelled his soundtrack as “music to invade small nations by” .

  6. Such a beautiful review – you set me up for the trailer – and sudden tears! I suspect it was Mark Rylance’s voice, in part! That dutiful intent and delivered in his unadorned accented-flatness! Thanks!

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