Friday, 21 July 2017

Film Review: With the intensely immersive Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan scores another masterpiece

The antagonist of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is largely faceless. Across all 106 minutes of the film, we get just one glimpse of the enemy German soldiers wrecking havoc on the beach and in the sea and across the sky. No, the villain of Dunkirk isn't the German army, it's death. Slaughter, even. The film has a handful of characters split across three timelines, but none of them are protagonists. If death is acting as the film's villain, hope is our only protagonist here.

Dunkirk isn't your ordinary war movie. It's a Christopher Nolan piece, it was never going to be. The film takes the three key components of the Dunkirk battlefield and divides them into sections, telling them in a non-linear structure that will eventually (presumably) meet at some stage. We begin on the beach (or, "The Mole") and meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British soldier narrowly escaping his death at the hand of a German sniper. It's a brilliantly tense opening sequence: bullets fly from unseen locations towards his fellow soldiers, picking them off one by one. Only when Tommy reaches the Dunkirk shore do we feel a sense of relief, even if just for a fleeting second. His timeline will last a week.

The film soon cuts back to the British shores, to find sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) with his son and a friend readying their small boat to venture across to Dunkirk and save as many of the British soldiers as they can. Their timeline will last a day. Finally we take to the skies to join Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Spitfire pilot flying over the British channel. His timeline will last an hour. We're presented with the three different perspectives all at once, and watch as they overlap, separate, repeat themselves and drift apart again.

It's an almost incomprehensibly sophisticated narrative structure - and one never before seen for this kind of movie - but Nolan pieces it together masterfully. It all comes together so smoothly, so utterly seamlessly that I guarantee a lot of casual cinemagoers will fail to appreciate how smart the film's structure is. But Nolan trusts his audience nonetheless, never taking the time to stop and explain his narrative work. The exposition heavy scripts of Inception and Interstellar are seemingly a long way behind him now, Dunkirk relies almost predominantly on slick editing and visual storytelling. It's a bold move, for sure, and it's impossible to describe the atmosphere it creates for the film - it really must be seen to be believed.

By stripping his script of so much dialogue, Nolan is able to ratchet the tension up to extreme heights. I'm talking hands shaking, feel your heartbeat in your chest, come out with a headache levels of intensity. Dunkirk is an immersive cinema experience, one that pulls you into its world from the very first frame and refuses to loosen its grip on you until the credits roll. It's tough to even pinpoint standout moments, as the whole film comes together like one feature length set piece. Imagine a standard war film with a conventional beginning, middle and end. Now strip it of its opening two acts and take the peak battle sequence that normally comes in the final third, and stretch it to feature length. This is what Dunkirk is comprised of.

And yet, despite lacking the narrative build up and necessary character development, the film hits the heart in ways Nolan has never even touched on before. Dunkirk sacrifices the overwhelming patriotism of most war films in favour of something more focused, and more primal. This is less a war movie than a survival one, a film that spends scene after scene putting its characters in peril and forcing us to hold our breath as they try to escape it. Soldiers shelter in an abandoned boat while the unseen Germans use it as target practice, and trust me when I say drowning has never seemed more horrifying than it does here. Nolan stages it all superbly, with crystal clear editing and yet another exhilarating score courtesy of Hans Zimmer. I never want to hear another ticking clock so long as I live.

The film's emotional core surfaces in unique ways. Dunkirk is simultaneously stripped back and all out, it takes characters whose names we don't even know and makes us root for them without even realising we're doing it. The film's final act is monumentally moving in how it allows us to feel everything the characters are experiencing, no easy feat for a story tackling such a heavy, hard-hitting subject. Nolan is unjustifiably seen as a cold, emotionally distant film maker, but I like to believe Dunkirk will shatter those beliefs. The film's final few minutes are soul-destroyingly powerful in ways I wouldn't even know where to begin describing. War stories don't impact me emotionally - in fact, they just never have done - but Dunkirk hit me hard. 

Using IMAX cameras and shooting on film only adds further richness to an already stunning film. The whole "see it on the biggest screen you can" argument has been made countless times for Dunkirk already, but I simply cannot reinforce this enough. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is breathtaking, a palette of faded pastel colours that finds depth in close up and frames entire beaches in a single wide shot. The air set sequences may be some of the best aerial film-making cinema has ever seen - CGI is great and all, but when you watch real Spitfires fly over the real British Channel, there's an authenticity to the visuals that feels unmatched. Dunkirk is a visually encompassing film, one sure to influence the way any future director tackles the war genre.

As well as being the year's best movie so far by a wide margin, I would comfortably label this Nolan's most accomplished work to date. My favourite of his films will probably always be Inception, but it's impossible to deny the craft and technicality and sheer ingeniousness of Dunkirk. This is a film that finds its director taking his signature style countless steps further while simultaneously fixing almost every common criticism of his prior work. It's a tour de force of cinema, an unforgettable experience that leaves you shaken well after you step back out into the daylight. Nolan is yet to be Oscar nominated as a director, but Dunkirk seems set to change that. Pens at the ready chaps, this is one for the history books.

In A Sentence

Stunningly crafted, powerfully moving and intense to almost unprecedented levels, Dunkirk finds writer-director Christopher Nolan on his strongest, boldest form to date. An immersive, unforgettable masterwork.

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