Sunday, 6 August 2017


Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in WWII.

Steven Spielberg laid claim to the Normandy beach landing, Clint Eastwood owns Iwo Jima, and now, Christopher Nolan has authored the definitive cinematic version of Dunkirk. Unlike those other battles, however, this last was not a conventional victory, but more of a salvaged retreat, as the German offensive forced a massive evacuation of English troops early in World War II. Christopher Nolan’s new film may be his The Longest Day, and it is also very close to being his shortest film. In fact, at a mere 106 minutes, Dunkirk is the first Nolan movie to dip beneath two hours. Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This movie is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified by defeat.

Dunkirk thrusts you into a pressure cooker and slams the lid on. It doesn’t have anything like the gore environment of Saving Private Ryan, but that doesn’t lessen its power. The scenario is simple — hellishly simple even. But if the movie’s set-up is basic, its structure is anything but basic. No filmmaker is as fascinated by time as Christopher Nolan is, or as keen at playing with it, and here he applies the temporal trickiness he pioneered with Inception, intercutting three timelines that move at different speeds. The result, as perspectives converge and overtake each other, is meticulous and mesmerising. And, in the case of a sequence which cuts between two characters trying not to drown, almost unbearably stressful.

Dunkirk is first and foremost a mood-piece and a hugely effective one. It doesn’t hurt that Hans Zimmer is on brilliant form, his score throbs like a heart and ticks like an angry stopwatch, so nerve-wracking that at times it feels like an additional enemy front. Nolan is concerned with what men can endure. Dunkirk is a study of people under immense pressure, from Rylance’s civilian-on-a-rescue-mission to Cillian Murphy’s traumatised wreck-survivor, to Harry Styles’ bolshy infantry grunt. An impressive debut performance, and definitely not the Rihanna-in-Battleship debacle you may have feared. At this darkest of hours, some of them crack; others hold firm. But all the arcs are effectively underplayed, with muted performances, no big speeches and, in the case of Tommy, the terrified audience surrogate, almost no talking at all.

The film is, of course, on a massive Nolanesque scale. Dunkirk is traditionally seen in terms of a miraculous underdog littleness that somehow redeemed the disaster. The small boats countered the memory of a British army dwarfed by Wehrmacht strategy and a British establishment humiliated. Though, Nolan gets the “wow” factor back by stripping away the pixels, shooting real Spitfires above the real English Channel. The results are incredible, particularly on the vast expanse of an IMAX screen, with the planes veering and soaring above a mass of blue. Indeed, where it does deliver on the action is in the sky. Today’s audiences have spent decades watching digital dogfights in Star Wars movies, themselves originally inspired by World War II movies. Finally, it almost feels wrong to say that a film about a situation so grave – which involved so much loss of life – is utterly thrilling, but it just is. Nolan handles the subject matter with absolute respect, but his set pieces equal any modern fiction film for pacing, shocks and breathless adrenaline. Literally: there are times where it actually feels difficult to breathe.

Overall, Dunkirk is a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here too.

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