The Watchers

The Watchers

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk (UK Cert 12A)

The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk in 1940 is one of the best known events of the Second World War (and notably one of the few which isn't a battle or a massacre). The Allied forces were cornered on the beaches at Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation, whilst German planes took out rescue convoys heading to help. In amongst all this, civilians who owned small boats sailed across the Channel to aid in the evacuation process. This extraordinary show of determination in the face of danger, and the willingness to help each other out in times of crisis, has even led to a phrase: the Dunkirk spirit.

Now, Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar) brings this story to the big screen. It's not the first film to deal with the event- there have been previous films in 1958 and 2004- but this is on a huge scale.  

Three separate storylines run through the film. On land, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) must wait to be evacuated from the beach; at sea, an older man and his son (Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney) use their small craft to assist in the rescue mission; in the air, two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) seek to stop German planes from destroying the rescue convoy. 

My advice would be, see this in the cinema and see it on the biggest screen you can. You really get a sense of the vastness of the Dunkirk beach (kudos to director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema for some sterling work) which is just amazing. In the 2007 film Atonement, there's a beautiful eight minute unbroken tracking shot which follows Robbie round the beach. Imagine that but turned up to eleven and you've got the idea.

Performances are really solid across the board. There's been some canny casting with the soldiers- they all look very young. It's also a canny idea to give the lion's share of the action to new (or maybe less experienced) actors; both Fionn Whitehead (as Tommy) and Aneurin Barnard (as Gibson) are exception, especially Barnard whose performance- bar one very important line- is silent. Much was made of this film being Harry Styles' acting debut, and the One Direction singer acquits himself well in his role as a bolshy soldier. 

The more experienced cast are, as you would imagine, superb. Mark Rylance is great as Mr Dawson, a man who takes his own pleasure craft out to help the soldiers. He has such a magnetic quality to him, so much happens behind his eyes but you can't take your eyes off him whenever he's on screen. Kenneth Branagh is strong as the stoic Commander Bolton, determined to get his men to safety. Frequent Nolan collaborators Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are similarly strong as a traumatised soldier and one of the RAF pilots accordingly, and there's even a lovely uncredited cameo by Michael Caine.  

This is not a film of earnest speechifying; in fact, there's not a great deal of dialogue throughout (the script itself ran to approximately 85 pages). Visuals and sound are used instead. There are some very tense moments, such as Tommy's run through the deserted town before he gets to the beach, and the struggle of one of the pilots to get out of his downed plane (which had me absolutely squirming). The sound design of the film is superb with every whistle, shot, and ricochet clear and crisp. I've already praised Van Hoytema's cinematography and Hans Zimmer's music is superb. He uses themes from Elgar's Enigma Variations (especially the famous 'Nimrod' at one pivotal moment) to stirring effect and- whilst it is unashamed emotional manipulation- you can't help but get swept up in that moment.

Because of the kind of film Dunkirk is, it's difficult to say I enjoyed it (much as in the same way, I can't say I enjoyed Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List). I very much admire the film and I think it's a film that a lot of people should see. It's still quite some months away but I would be surprised if Dunkirk doesn't get a lot of love in the 2018 awards season.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5


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