Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy & Mark Rylance
Rating: 12 Duration: 106 minutes Release date: 18 December (UK)
Sometimes, after seeing a film for the first time it can be difficult to know exactly what to say about it. Dunkirk is that film. It’s a gorgeous film, with Chris Nolan delivering some of the most endearing shots of 2017. It’s also an utterly deafening film, even on DVD it threatens to either make your ears bleed or blow the speakers on your TV. But, it’s also a highly frustrating film, and no matter how well made it is, Dunkirk can feel like a kick to the nuts when everyone has been harping on about how bloody good it is.
Dunkirk is a film that largely plays it loose with conceptions on structure and linear storytelling. The film features three separate stories as we follow a young soldier trying to escape the encroaching Germans, a father who sets sail with his son and his son’s best friend to rescue as many Allied soldiers as possible and an RAF pilot who is low on fuel while engaged in a dogfight with the enemy. What Nolan does here is to have the three story arcs cross paths, overlap each other, go back in time and then finally all meet at roughly the same time. It does make for a confusing scenario and may prove distressing for viewers who expected the film to be handed to them on a plate. Dunkirk will require a level of concentration to enable the viewer to map out the varying time-line, but multiple viewings will likely put paid to this.
There is a distinct lack of blood and gore here, and for a film about war, that is a bold move. Nolan instead has built tension with carefully crafted set pieces and an almost minimal attempt at doing so. To say Nolan has kept things simple would be a disservice to the work done here, but it does press ever closer to some sort of blockbuster/art-house cinema hybrid. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and those big name actors such as Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy are kept to marginal parts, often relying on a look or a short moment of dialogue in which they have anything to do. Hardy in particular, as the RAF pilot in pursuit of the Luftwaffe, has 90% of his face covered throughout, and is his usual utterly commanding self.
Dunkirk toys with our expectations about the enemy. Films like Saving Private Ryan fully engage the enemy, but Dunkirk instead restrains from this, we know the enemy is there, but as one would presume a real war to go – you don’t see them until you’re engaged with them or running away from then. The tension caused from this is well crafted and powerful. Take the opening scene for example, something Nolan specialises in, as we see a young soldier on the run from the German forces who have pinned him and his comrades down. Nolan sets his stall out early on, but struggles to keep the pace even though the film is a relatively sprightly 106 minutes.
With little in the way of dialogue and a confusing non-linear approach to the story, Nolan threatens to anger viewers who were after something easier to follow. This definitely is no gung-ho Hollywood chest thumping where our heroes defiantly stick a middle finger up at the Germans. Instead, this is a much quieter affair. One that relies on focused tension building and lives in the hope that the audience are smart enough to follow what is happening on the screen. It’s unlikely to go down as Nolan’s best work, and sometimes you do feel that he rather outstrips himself in terms of what he wants to achieve. But, even an average Christopher Nolan film is better than what most other directors can offer, and though it may also need multiple viewings to be fully appreciated – Dunkirk is a thoroughly well made film that perhaps was best watched on the big screen, but DVD will have to do for now.