Review: Dunkirk


Time is the fundamental building block of cinema. The ability to manipulate time, whether by contracting it, expanding it, or reordering it, is what distinguishes cinema’s greatest artists. Christopher Nolan has been playing with time since the very start of his career, and with each new film he has built upon his ability to employ it in stunning new ways. However, every Nolan film until now was a work of fiction, in which he had complete control over his capacity to make time fit his narrative goals. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first foray into telling a real life story, but perhaps there’s no better tale for him to tell than that of that pivotal evacuation in World War II. With such a seemingly straightforward narrative, Nolan crafts an audacious structure, maximizing the dwindling clock for all of its ticks, and resulting in one of the most visceral war films in recent memory.

In May of 1940, the British military was in full retreat from France, and 400,000 men wound up on the shores of the beaches of Dunkirk. With German forces closing in, the evacuation needed to commence rapidly, but with British destroyers called back to England, those soldiers remaining could only hope to be saved by civilian vessels called to their rescue. As they sit on the open beaches, the soldiers face almost certain death at any moment, as the enemy fires down upon them from the sky. This is the first part of the story, as it centers upon one young man named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), and the desperate lengths he takes to stay alive. There’s also the story from the sea, as one gentlemen named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and friend George (Barry Keoghan) venture into perilous waters and are confronted with heartbreaking choices. Finally, there’s the story from the air, as fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), fights off German attackers in the sky.

Those three narratives may seem simple on the surface, but the brilliance of Dunkirk is that each narrative occurs over a different span of time. Tommy’s journey on the beaches takes place over a week, Mr. Dawson and his sons’ over the course of a day, and Farrier’s in just an hour. Thus there are three ticking clocks cut in parallel, and Nolan takes every opportunity to ratchet the tension to unbearable heights. At first, it may appear that creating such a structure might make the storytelling convoluted, but Lee Smith’s deft editing emphasizes how each story affects the other two, building to a momentous third act. There are dozens moments of surprise and suspense throughout, but nothing ever feels repetitious, each new situation feeling more calamitous than the last. After making each of his previous epics longer than the last, Dunkirk is Nolan’s second shortest film to date, but employs its tension without sacrificing its scale.

Dunkirk is surprisingly bloodless for a war film, earning a PG-13 rating, but that scarcely minimizes the impact or frequency of death onscreen. Few war films have felt as intensely in the moment as Dunkirk, and while the editing contributes to that, so does the formidable sound design. From the scream of fighter planes overhead, to water rushing into a sinking vessel, every passing moment carries a greater weight to it. That building intensity is what gives the film such a vital empathy, and while none of the characters are fleshed out in any great detail, they don’t need to be. All members of the ensemble are admirably committed, be they reliable veterans like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, or fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead and even Harry Styles. Individual moments define these characters, be they of heroism, cowardice, or the uncertain moral quandaries in between. If there’s one element to the film that has some inconsistency, it might be Hans Zimmer’s score, which has a few too many distortions and electronic touches to it that feel out of place for the era. However, when called upon to bring the drama onscreen to full froth, Zimmer’s score works like gangbusters.

Finally, there’s Hoyte Van Hoytema’s luminous IMAX photography, a format that is an invaluable to tool in Nolan’s palette. From the grey beaches, the deep blue seas, and the shimmering aerials, every location is impressively captured with the muscular lenses, be they mounted on shoulders, or locked onto airplanes. Indeed, even for a director who has already produced some stunning films in the past, Dunkirk may be Christopher Nolan’s most technically assured film to date. Yet plenty of technical masterclasses exist without the other important storytelling ingredients to magnify them. What makes Dunkirk approach that other “m” word is that Nolan always reminds us of how every little moment, be it a tragedy or a triumph, contributes to the ultimate victory.


~ by romancinema on July 20, 2017.

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