Dunkirk

Dunkirk
Dunkirk
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring 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
In UK Cinemas July 21st, 2017

by Joanna Orland

More than a film, Dunkirk is an immersive visual masterpiece. Watching it in IMAX was almost an endurance test; it felt as though I was in a VR experience rather than passively watching a film, as detailed shots and thoughtful camera perspectives drew me into each scene, the sense of drowning in the water amongst the British soldiers engulfing me. The picture was too big to be fully appreciated, the pace too high-octane for me to take a moment to breathe. The sound too loud to calm my heart rate as the wall to wall Hans Zimmer score shook the room from start to finish.

Every shot of this film has been meticulously orchestrated by director Christopher Nolan to be a work of art, and to thrust the viewer into the evacuation of Dunkirk. The cinematography and landscapes are stunning, as it is clearly one of the most aesthetically beautiful films to come out in recent times. The attention to detail is immaculate, even down to the way the wind carries the grains of sand on the beach.

Having shot Dunkirk on film, Nolan brings an almost archival quality to the picture. The small glitches and grains on the film print itself give it an authenticity, capturing the era in which this film is set. Screening on IMAX is actually too intense of a way to watch this film; to have the picture so detailed and so big leaves too much for the brain to process. On one hand it enhances the feeling of immersion, but on the other it is a bombardment of the senses. There is just too much visual and aural detail to absorb at once.

Luckily, there is almost no dialogue in this film. In classic Christopher Nolan style, the sound mix is dreadful and any words that are muttered are muffled to the point of being inaudible. The Hans Zimmer score once again takes centre stage in this film, mostly for worse. The first 15 minutes of the film are engrossing, but as the score never lets up and only builds until the point of absurdity, it begins to detract from rather than enhance the mood. The climax of the film has a score so ridiculous, I can’t even fathom the amount of string tracks used in the recording – it’s as if 100 orchestras started playing the theme from Psycho all at the same time. And as the music is wall to wall from start to finish, it is impossible to emotionally engage with anything going on on screen – the film washes over you, but much as the water washes over the soldiers off the coast of Dunkirk. This may not be very filmic in the traditional sense, but it certainly emanates the feeling of the chaos. And the chaos ensues as there are only 4 seconds of the film that do not have music – both 2 second segments are near the end of the film, by which point you are left grasping for them.

The music intensity is sadly not the only flaw to be found in this otherwise wondrous film. I don’t mind the lack of a staged plot, dialogue or even distinct characters to latch on to, but the lack of emotion is a bit disconcerting for an epic war drama. All stylized action and no heart, Nolan puts his soul into the visuals rather than the actual emotive arc of the film. Characters may live, they may die, it doesn’t really matter as the stakes aren’t really high if you don’t particularly care about anyone. In fact, do any of them even have names? I cannot recall. When characters are portrayed as abstract shells of human beings, it’s just too hard to connect.

In spite of lacking strong characters, somehow the performances in Dunkirk are still outstanding. As there is little dialogue, performances are mostly at the discretion of Nolan’s direction. This pays off greatly as every shot is like a painting, the actors merely part of the canvas. Even the casting choices have been made artistically. Each of the English soldiers looks indistinguishable from one another – early 20’s, brunette, foppish hair, indiscernible features – as a metaphor for how a soldier becomes anonymous, lost amongst his clan. The only blonde hair and unique facial features in the film belong to civilians, RAF and captains, separating them not just through their roles in the war, but through their aesthetics.

Fionn Whitehead is our main protagonist, the only soldier we follow from beginning to end. His face is remarkably fascinating – yet bland enough to blend in with all of the other brunette soldier clones. Alongside him is One Direction’s Harry Styles in his proper acting debut, using restraint to bring a subtle vulnerability mixed with malice to his complex character. In spite of Styles having one of the most recognizable faces in the world, he effortlessly blends in with the other British soldiers, weighting his role perfectly for this film.

Carrying the torch for British thespians, Kenneth Branagh gives what is possibly the most melodramatic performance of the film, as an army captain metaphorically, and possibly literally, willing to go down with his ship. Mark Rylance is as dependable as ever, this time as a patriotic civilian captaining his own boat to bring British soldiers home. Nolan mainstays Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy appear, Murphy giving the only almost-heartfelt performance while Hardy once again going full Bane, speaking through a mask as he pilots a plane for the RAF.

I came out of Dunkirk feeling as though I had been trying to sail to Britain alongside the soldiers. I didn’t learn anything historically fascinating, I didn’t find myself emotionally engaged with any plot or characters, but I fully experienced this film. Christopher Nolan doesn’t just make movies; he makes event cinema.



 

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