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Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Christopher Nolan is among the most influential and masterful directors of our time. Every single film he has made has been visually stunning, boasting inspired performances and pitch-perfect directing. It’s easy to see why so many love the man and his work. But, it’s also easy to see why some people are less than impressed with him, especially of late. All of his films tend to carry the same tone, dramatic feel and, to an extent, eerily similar stories and characters. Also, while the man is near flawless as a director, his scripts tend to suffer – either being overbearing or overly sympathetic. Personally, I’ve found Nolan’s career to be a mixed bag. The Dark Knight and Memento are among the best I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, The other two Batman films he directed felt hollow to me, and Interstellar, to me, was nearly insufferable. But that didn’t stop me from looking forward to Nolan’s war epic, Dunkirk.
The film follows the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II. The Allied Forces (the British and French at this time), were surrounded at the northern coast of France and had to be evacuated at, where else, Dunkirk.
From the first second, we are thrown right into the middle of all this. Remember Saving Private Ryan and the D-Day beach opening? Well, imagine that was the whole film – with less blood and guts that is. We follow three men. A young soldier on the land. Mark Rylance in his little fishing boat on the sea. Tom Hardy fighting German fighters in the air. From those three we get our film. A film that doesn’t focus on the big picture of Dunkirk, just pieces of it. As we as an audience see this evacuation through the experiences of these three men.
It’s become cliché to say it now, but it’s true. Dunkirk is visually amazing! It feels real. It’s raw, pulls no punches and immerses you in the here-and-now of the war at hand. I have never been at war, and needless to say I wasn’t at the Dunkirk evacuation. But I could imagine this to be pretty accurate as to how these men felt. Around 300 thousand men on a beach, while the Germans bombarded them from the air. It’s very bleak colour-wise, most consisting of greys, browns and dark blues. But the sets look real enough to touch them. At times, you swear you could even smell the ocean. More impressive is the sound. The guns make the actual sounds of guns, not the Hollywood popping we’re used to. The planes are deafening. The music by Hans Zimmer is some of the best the man has made in years. It incorporates the sounds of objects with its score – such as the ticking of a clock or the growling of an engine. It’s just ingenious.
The acting is top-notch, and from some surprising cast members too. Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh are men we expect greatness from. But Harry Styles! God awful boy-band One Direction Harry Styles! Giving a great performance? Hard as it is to believe; but yes, he does exactly that. Most of the other actors in this film are not popular names, and I’d be lying if I Said that I knew who they were. But, given the chance, they have the talent to make themselves well-known household names.
Nolan directs the actors and the rest of the film exceptionally well. This is stressful to watch – and I mean that in a good way. It’s a film about the true event at Dunkirk.
If it’s not stressful, or at least tense, then something has gone wrong somewhere. It’s a very psychological film. So, even if the violence isn’t very graphic (at all really), you still feel every ounce of dead and fear these men are going through. Nolan also tells the story in a very unique way. For a moment I was confused by the film; in one scene it was night time, but then the following one it was day, but then it cut back to night in the next scene. It confused me until I realised that we were not receiving this story in chronological order. The beach takes place one weak from the ending. Rylance is one day from the ending. And Hardy is just one hour from it. It was a detail that I missed for a long time into the films hour-and-a-half runtime. Odd at first, but once I got used to it I realised that there was no other way to make this film.
Dunkirk may well be among my favourite films of the year so far, but it’s not perfect. There are some dialogue issues, particularly towards the end. I also don’t think the film has too much re-watch value. It’s essential viewing in my eyes, but it’s a bit too stressful and emotionally draining for a revisit anytime soon. But, while this didn’t bother me, I think what most people are going to take issue with is that we learn nothing about the characters in the film. Not a single thing. There’s no cliched “my wife is waiting at home, with our first baby who I’ll see soon because I’m two days from retirement” stuff. We don’t learn that this person was a teacher, or that one a store keeper. We don’t learn that one’s age. We don’t know if this man is a psychopath. We know nothing. But, neither did these men. Nobody knew anybody on this beach. This film sets itself out to capture the raw feeling of this war, and not knowing is a huge part of it. We may not know them, but they’re no less sympathetic for it. I have a feeling Nolan did this for the same reason he never shows us a German soldier (save a couple silhouettes in one scene). Because doing so would detract from the film at hand, and the horror in the moment.
Dunkirk is a film you need to see. If only once.
It’s among my favourite of Nolan’s films, and is by far his most original since Memento. Despite it’s hard-going nature, Dunkirk will also have you entertained come the end. In a year of many blockbuster disappointments, it’s refreshing to see a historical film (of all things) live up to its name and potential. Love Nolan or hate him, this is one that that should not be missed.