Running Time: 106 minutes
Director: Chris Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh ,Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy
(QFT Press Screening in 35mm)
Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
‘Survival isn’t fair!’
Chris Nolan’s latest feature is the director’s shortest film since Insomnia and it essentially boils down to one long elaborate set-piece told from three different perspectives. We get to see the events of Dunkirk from the point of view of the soldiers stuck on the French beaches, the civilian sailors who set out to bring the soldiers home and the pilots valiantly patrolling the skies in their spitfires: each bringing their own take on the unfolding drama.
In a similar vein to some of his previous films like Memento and Inception, Dunkirk’s narrative isn’t told in a straightforward linear way. Each point of view has its distinctive timeline, although they do intersect with each other throughout the movie, sometimes appearing out of sequence or retelling an event we’ve already seen minutes before. It might sound needlessly complicated but it works really well throughout the feature.
The mission, not the men!
Viewers looking for something akin to Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan may be left slightly disappointed, despite an impressive ensemble cast this isn’t a film that’s overly interested with one singular character, but the collective effort by land, sea and air to get 400,000 British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk back home to British soil.
There’s little if any ‘war porn’ on display throughout the feature, this isn’t a film that wallows in the war is hell mantra, but more so one that pays homage to one of the most audacious military operations of the second world war; when British soldiers couldn’t get home, home came to them.
There are no individual heroes here; we don’t have a Tom Hanks Captain Miller type here pushing the narrative along. Nolan never really allows the film to become fixated on one singular character, each might have their own individual little moments, but this film is about the collective sense of heroism that prevailed at Dunkirk, rather than the individuals involved.
It’s a celebration of the British resolve at a time when defeat looked almost certain; much like Roy Baker’s A Night to Remember this is a film about Britishness in crisis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film overloaded with an overbearing sense of a patriotism; It’s proud but not an outright decent into flag-waving madness like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour.
In many ways you could say the opposite about the film’s portrayal of the British soldiers on Dunkirk, desperate young men determined to do whatever they could to get back home, even if many of them felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed as they thought they’d let their country down on the military field.
Show, don’t tell!
Dunkirk is a film with a sparsity of dialogue, it’s not bogged down by the logistics of the operation or conversations about the morality of warfare; but it lets the visuals do the talking with some truly striking imagery.
Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked character sitting alone, shivering atop the bow of a sunken British destroyer, a group of soldiers vainly trying to plug bullet holes in the side of their vessel with their bare hands as they try to stop the surge of incoming sea-water or the arrival of the civilian convoy at Dunkirk reducing Kenneth Branagh’s stern British Commander to tears.
Moments like these are so simple, yet extremely powerful! It helps when you have Hans Zimmer fantastic score amplifying their impact, but Nolan continues to be a filmmaker who treats audiences with a certain degree of respect; he understands the power of the image and remains a devotee of the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra of filmmaking.
Practical film-making at its finest
At a time when multiplexes are filled with so many CGI laden blockbusters Nolan’s stubborn determination to do as much as he can onscreen practically, pays dividends when viewed on the big screen. It may seem trivial or inconsequential to some, but for me it adds a degree of authenticity and gravitas to the film’s set-pieces, particularly the sinking of a British destroyer by a German U-Boat.
Much has been made about the various formats which the film can be viewed in from 4k, 35mm, 70mm to IMAX, each bringing their own unique viewing experience. Nolan himself has championed the 35mm print, a custodian of a format which was once the norm in many cinemas now made increasingly obsolete with the digital revolution.
If I was pushed I’d recommend the 35mm version as it is the director’s ‘preferred version’, but my honest opinion is to simply go see this film on the biggest screen with the best sound system and enjoy a brilliant filmmaker on the top of his game.
Loved the film, but then I’m a huge Nolan fan-boy and therefore slightly biased! In my humble opinion Dunkirk is a visceral master-class in practical film-making!