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MOVIE REVIEW: FTN reviews Dunkirk

July 21st, 2017 by Mark McCann Comments

Dunkirk (12a)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard & Kenneth Brannagh
Running time: 1hr 46mins

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.

Typically, any film with Christopher Nolan’s name on it has a reserved critical seal of approval, and with the sombre, sweeping trailers in the lead up to Dunkirk’s release, it was easy to buy into the early hype of the film as a potential Oscar contender and probably cinematic masterwork. But before we heaped it with praise it was worth noting that Nolan also has the tendency to create a practical aesthetic and grandiose plot that outstrips his characters’ storyline, which has often led to films that are beautiful but have a hollow feeling at their centre.

The reality of Dunkirk is somewhere in between.

Following the framework of a land, sea and air narrative that’s been chopped up and redistributed, we join 400,000 soldiers trapped on the shores of Dunkirk post battle with the German Panzer corps, a father and his sons in the civilian fleet en route to help evacuate and a pair of RAF pilots fighting off Luftwaffe bombers in aerial battles around the shores.

Avoiding the politics that raged in the background of what was considered a massive military failure, or the camaraderie in base rank and file, instead, we get for the most part a desolate film focusing on small personal struggles.

Harry Stiles makes a serviceable acting debut amongst seasoned Nolan veterans Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, as a combination of squaddies, the RAF and a shell-shocked survivor. The real credit, however, must go to Mark Rylance, giving a quiet dignity to Mr Dawson, a man who takes his sons to evacuate the troops in his small cruise vessel and the sacrifices he makes on his way.

Kenneth Branagh provides gravity, staring desperately at the horizon as a Naval commander short on hope for salvation, but it’s Hans Zimmer’s score that does the heavy lifting, giving context to the plot and abandoning the gratuity of the typical war film for something more subtle and pained.

Zimmer’s pounding accompaniment bores at the listener, engineering an almost relentless sense of dread and hopelessness as the German bombers pepper the beach and the men on it.

With the score setting the tone, Nolan allows the scene to do the work, the cast seeming less actors and more extras, which is not a bad thing. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s capturing of the event cements him as one of the best cinematographers in the business. This looks like an actual piece of history that has been shot, rather than a retrospective. Nothing feels anachronistic and the locations at Dunkirk are immaculately recaptured. Which is perhaps what sets the film apart from an entertaining film and a tremendous piece of history grimly reflected on celluloid.

Art, of course, is there to challenge the viewer. The brilliantly shot scenes of men lined helplessly on the Mole, British destroyers bombed to smithereens or the dynamic aerial battles that enrich with that practical effect, are all highly effective at driving home the magnitude and severity of the situation.

But this is, at its heart, a piece of art, not a piece of entertainment.

The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, though, in the case of Dunkirk, I would be loathe to recommend this to viewers looking for an entertaining evening and hoping for a ripping yarn of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat: Nolan’s epic is something more poignant and undoubtedly potent, and artistically perhaps his best ever film.

But as a piece of entertainment for the casual cinema goer, Dunkirk is a relentless, grim and solitary affair, with none of the character interaction that has made other war movies so popular in the zeitgeist or the heart that has driven home the sacrifice of war and endeared the men of the conflict.

This isn’t Band of Brothers by any stretch and instead emphasises the sadness of the calamity and the desperation of the men on the ground. Small glimmers of hope come too late to make this in any way uplifting, which as an auteurs quest to capture reality, undoubtedly is a success.

Film critics may well fall over themselves to praise what is one of the most artistic and realistic films of the year, but for a good night out I would recommend you give Dunkirk a miss and watch a documentary instead. At least then you know exactly what you’ve signed up for.

I came here in a time machine from the 1980s. The time machine was called childhood. I'm getting back there at all costs! (I also live, love, write, lift & pet cats wherever I may find them.)