July 20, 2017
Very much like the pivotal historical event it celebrates, "Dunkirk" confounds expectations. Both intimate and epic, as emotional as it is tension-filled, it is being ballyhooed as a departure for bravura filmmaker Christopher Nolan, but in truth the reason it succeeds so masterfully is that it is anything but.
What happened at the French coastal town of Dunkirk between May 26 and June 4, 1940, was perhaps World War II's unlikeliest turnaround, as a complete military fiasco transmogrified into a stirring psychological victory capped by Winston Churchill's stirring "we shall fight on the beaches" speech.
This battle has fascinated writer-director Nolan for years — he once crossed the English Channel on a small boat specifically to get a sense of the setting — and he's brought a multifaceted examination of it to the screen in a way that's both structurally daring and evocative of old-school David Lean-style storytelling.
Using a cast that adroitly mixes young actors making their feature-film debuts (including former One Direction member Harry Styles) with canny veterans such as Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, "Dunkirk" resembles previous Nolan films like "The Dark Knight" trilogy and "Inception" in concrete as well as thematic ways.
Working with repeat collaborators including cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan demonstrates his all-enveloping skill with the tools of narrative, a deep understanding of and commitment to craft as well as — witness his telling actor Styles that his boots were laced wrong — a willingness to care about the myriad details of filmmaking.
Shooting with both Imax and 65mm cameras, some of which were specially designed for small spaces, Nolan not only dazzles us with immersive, God's-eye perspectives, he understands, as always, that a big screen image pulls you into details like cigarette butts left on a windowsill, that huge close-ups can enhance intimacy and increase immediacy. If you don't see "Dunkirk" on the biggest screen you can find, you'll be missing the heart of the experience.
As he's said in numerous interviews, Nolan has conceived of his film not as a historical drama but rather a Hitchcockian thriller where, aided and abetted by Smith's razor cutting and Zimmer's crescendoing score, clocks are relentlessly ticking on any number of fronts.
And though much has been made about "Dunkirk" being Nolan's first film about historical events, on examination that feels like a distinction without a difference. Almost all of his films, even the Batman ones, can be looked at as involving ordinary people being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. That is the case with a vengeance here.
Because of the complexity of what happened at Dunkirk, Nolan has divided his film into three distinct but interlocking narratives, intercutting between actions on the ground, on the sea and in the air — and making it all fit into a crisp 1 hour and 47 minutes.
Though Dunkirk was an enormous event, with close to 400,000 British and Allied troops trapped on that French beach with the Germans about to pounce, Nolan has concentrated on small groups of men whose stories stand in for the larger whole.
What keeps "Dunkirk" from being completely straightforward is a kind of temporal sleight of hand. While the action on land unfolds over a week, what happens on sea takes place in a single day and the air battles unfold in a mere hour. By placing these different time frames on an equal footing, "Dunkirk" enlarges our experience and keeps us on our toes.
It's the land war we encounter first, watching Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) running for his life as German bullets pursue him though deserted streets. Suddenly the vastness of the Dunkirk beach, as surreal as a Di Chirico landscape, opens up in front of him. (Nolan shot on the real location, which was swept for unexploded ordnance as a precaution).
The land part of "Dunkirk" is called "the mole," another word for the beach's stone breakwater with a wooden pier built onto it where long lines of troops are waiting patiently to be evacuated.
Tommy and the other impossibly young soldiers he meets, including the quiet Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the edgier Alex (Styles) employ a range of stratagems in their desperation to get on a ship that will take them home. But because safe places can become deathtraps in a heartbeat, feeling secure and out of danger as German planes periodically attack with bullets and bombs is not in the cards.
While the soldiers are young and not really sure what is going on, older and wiser heads fill us in, primarily Navy Commander Bolton, finely done by a gimlet-eyed Kenneth Branagh decades past his own young hero days as Henry V.
It is Bolton who explains that because of the shallow nature of Dunkirk's beach, small vessels would be needed to rescue the men. A call had gone out to Britain's boat owners to help, and in fact hundreds of self-motivated small ships (a dozen of the real craft appear in the film) took up the task.
Among those is the Moonstone, owned and piloted by a man named Dawson (Mark Rylance, letter-perfect as always). With him is his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son's friend George (Barry Keoghan), but their task is complicated when they pick up a shell-shocked survivor who wants only to go home (Nolan veteran Cillian Murphy).
The most exhilarating "Dunkirk" episodes, not surprisingly, are the aerial battles fought against the Germans by a trio of Spitfires. The aerial panoramas cinematographer Van Hoytema and his crew capture are truly dizzying, and having Tom Hardy, an actor whose presence makes the most of confining spaces, as one of the pilots is a major bonus.
Although tension about who will live and who will die is always front and center in a film like this, one of the confounding things about "Dunkirk" is that behind the scenes Nolan and company are quietly building a surprising amount of emotion. By the close, just like those of the troops that did survive, we're taken unawares by how moving what we've been through has been.
For the surpassing accomplishment of "Dunkirk" is to make us feel an almost literal fusion with its story. It's not so much that we've seen a splendid movie, though we have, but as if we've been taken inside a historic event, become wholly immersed in something real and alive. Like a debacle turned into a triumph, that is something that doesn't happen every day.
Dunkirk Review: Heart-hammering and heroically British, this is Christopher Nolan at the peak of his powers
By Robbie Collins
21, July 2017
Of the many things that stun and convulse you in Dunkirk, the smallest might have the most lasting impact. Early on, as the camera surveys the British soldiers stood along the French shoreline in thin, straggling columns, one thought – they’re so young – jams in your head like a door stop, and gets driven in harder with every passing minute.
Christopher Nolan’s astonishing new film, a retelling of the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, is a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screen within reach. But its spectacle doesn’t stop at the recreations of Second World War combat.
ike all great war films, it’s every bit as transfixing up close: at the wheels of the civilian boats scudding across the Channel, inside the cockpits of the fighter planes tearing overhead, and most of all on the beach, with those uniformed boys barely out of their teens, wrestling with the strange notion of defeat with honour even as they fight for their lives.
he land, sea and air strands of the story unspool simultaneously, even though each one spans a different period of time. It’s one week for Fionn Whitehead’s pointedly named Tommy – as in Atkins, presumably – and the other common troops huddled on the beach, one day for the civilian sailors, like Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his schoolfriend (Barry Keoghan) sailing from the English coast to Dunkirk, and one hour for Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s Spitfire pilots, thinning out the Messerschmitts that dart and dive overhead like buzzards scenting blood. (In an unnerving piece of streamlining, the film keeps the enemy troops themselves almost entirely out of sight: they’re only present as falling propaganda sheets, swooping aircraft, bombs and bullets.)
t’s a structural device that sounds confusing on paper but is creamily intuitive in practice, creating an unshakeable sense that these scattered events are somehow driving towards a single pivotal historical moment. It’s also about as self-consciously ‘clever’ as Dunkirk gets: the film is so differently ambitious from Nolan’s earlier work, it makes you wonder where on earth he’ll go next. (Please God, not Bond.)
There’s arguably something of the Inception spinning top to the juxtaposition of two images that ends the film – about which I’ll say no more here, other than it may be the single most haunting cut in Nolan’s filmography to date.
ut the questions it poses, about the actual substance and significance of the British ‘Dunkirk spirit’, both then and now, are asked in a spirit of total seriousness.
nd Dunkirk is every inch a British film, with no detectable concessions to the international market. There isn’t, for instance, the commercially fortunate presence of an American face among the cast – although there is a bright, convicted, and unexpectedly not-at-all-jarring performance from Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, as one of the young soldiers on the beach.
Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh also appear in prominent, true-to-type supporting roles. But a couple of context-setting spiels are as close as things come to the swelling rhetoric the presence of Branagh – or Hardy, or Rylance, for that matter – might lead you to expect.
Amid the moment-to-moment heroism and struggle for survival in Dunkirk, the dialogue is sparse and functional at most: think barked orders, cries for help, stoic radio chatter as tracer fire whistles past canopies.
hat matters above all else is the actors’ visceral engagement with whatever seemingly insurmountable task is facing them in any given moment. (Hardy, who spends almost the entire film behind a flight helmet, has only his eyes and eyebrows to work with, and of course they’re more than enough.)
ou could describe Dunkirk as a silent film at heart – and the superb Hans Zimmer score, battering, surging, metronomically counting off the seconds, is such a constant presence it’s more or less an accompaniment.
Yet there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket.
At one point, when the British soldiers are strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy throws himself on the sand, and huge geysers of sand rush up into the air behind him, closer and closer, until the debris beats down on his head like hailstones. It’s an indelible shot that takes on an extra waking-dream lucidity in Nolan’s preferred field-of-vision-flooding IMAX format.
urning the world on its side is a signature Nolan camera manoeuvre, and it happens repeatedly here – albeit more subtly than in Inception’s corkscrew corridors and origami skylines.
Its use during the scenes of aerial combat is as exhilarating as you’d expect, while in an extraordinary sequence in which a battleship takes on water and capsizes, the sea and the vessel’s hull seem to fold together like the closing covers of a pop-up book. It’s almost like something out of Eisenstein or Vertov – mad angles, teeming compositions, and completely unlike a special effect.
teven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, that double-bill of masterpieces from 1998, rewrote the rules of engagement between cinema and war, and changed the way many of us think about both.
Dunkirk is as unlike those films as they are each other, but all three fall into a tradition of capturing real, enormous horrors at intimate quarters that can be traced as far back as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
That task – perhaps more than any other in cinema – takes a filmmaker at the peak of their powers. This is the work of one.