Nolan’s unique war epic sees the British director revisit the past in more ways than one…
During the initial marketing push for Dunkirk, I have to admit, I wasn’t that excited. Now, I love a good war epic, and blockbuster behemoth Christopher Nolan will always provide a cinematic spectacle worth dragging me into a movie theatre, but in this case something felt a little off. Sure, the initial teaser trailer piqued my interest with that excruciatingly tense off screen bomber dive, but the subsequent promotional material lacked impact. Fear was rising within me that Nolan’s tendency to drift from quality, concise storytelling was going to come to the forefront once again, leaving us with a potentially bloated piece of style over substance.
Then I found out the film was being shot on 65mm and released in 70mm, a format readers of my The Hateful Eight review know I have a fair bit of time for. Next, I found out, in a surprising change of pace for Nolan, that the running time was due to clock in at a quick fire 107 minutes. Suddenly, it seemed as though Nolan, rather than attempting to produce a Spielberg-esque “story” around the British evacuation of Dunkirk, as most probably expected, was actually focusing solely on doing what he does best: producing a cinematic experience.
And a cinematic experience is what Dunkirk is. Such an approach will no doubt divide audiences, with those seeking a more traditional story arc and/or a full gung-ho representation of events already expressing confusion and disappointment related to the action and dialogue (or lack thereof), as well as the time splicing structure of the narrative. At the other end of the spectrum are the slightly overblown five star reviews gushing left, right and centre from high profile publications.
My own personal conclusion lands somewhere in between. Dunkirk isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a technically splendid piece of cinema that stands out not only for being unashamedly British – an aspect of Hollywood war productions we haven’t seen for a fair old while – but also for being a downright ballsy production. At times the picture borders on silent film territory, a format Nolan was clearly influenced by. The shortage of dialogue actually works well, as Hans Zimmer’s quite tremendous score steps in to dictate proceedings. Pounding and humming, rising and falling; it drives the action to perfection. Complementing the score is the quite awesome sound editing and design. Nothing gets the spine tingling quite like that first classic, gradually creeping, siren-like descent of a dive bombing Stuka, and from there on out the sound is the first major reason why Dunkirk is worth seeing as it was intended, in 70mm.
The second is the rich visual experience afforded by the larger film print, with the scope and impact of each crucial shot expanded. If you had to pick a type of feature that would benefit from, and is a treat to view in 70mm, it would be a technically-driven, immersion-focused experience, which, for the most part, Nolan manages to achieve. Content-wise there is certainly a repetitive lull during the middle of proceedings that interrupts the more emotionally engaging flow during the first and finals thirds. However, the direction and photography match the decision to shoot using larger print and cameras, as Nolan and his counterpart, Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema – whose vibrant use of colour in flicks such as Her and Interstellar returns to strike a fine balance between bleak and breathtaking – pull out all the stops, particularly during the aerial dogfight and bombing sequences.
The who’s who of British and Irish talent in front of the camera combine for a well executed, altogether subtle collection of performances, with veterans Branagh, Hardy, Murphy and Rylance (who I usually think is a tad overrated) doing the business, rather than individually stealing the spotlight. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead doggedly leads the tale on the beach, but the surprising turn is that of Harry Styles (words I never thought I’d type). Though I refuse to believe the official line that Nolan had no clue just how famous Styles was until after he’d auditioned and won the part (as if someone didn’t whisper it in his ear), the lad blends in with a natural performance that will no doubt earn deserved praise. As an aside, if his presence encourages the youth to subconsciously subject itself to some key British history combined with highly technical cinema, then I’m all for it.
As usual, I’d rather folks watch the film rather than hear about content from me, but I will reiterate that it’s wise to enter the theatre expecting a slice of time and energy, rather than a traditional linear journey. That’s not to say events don’t cause the room to get a little dusty at times, though that may be due in part to the strange, these days rare feeling of British pride popping up inside me. The rather jarring moment to round things off for me was the unexpected shoutout for my hometown of Woking, which certainly raised a smile from across the Atlantic.
Whatever your background, however, Dunkirk is worth taking a trip to the cinema for. If you can catch it in 70mm and/or IMAX, great, but if not it’s still a unique experience in this time of bland blockbusters. Take cover…