Man, Christopher Nolan’s a right old grumpy fuddy-duddy, isn’t he?
“Boo hoo! I don’t like Netflix.”
“Boo hoo! I don’t like filming on digital.”
“Boo hoo! I only want to tell stories about older white men who’ve lost someone close to them and yet struggle through said tragedy to do the right thing.”
But I suppose when your last six films “only” cost $985 million, and have brought in a box office total just shy of $4 billion; you can, in the immortal words of Donald Trump, “do anything.”
Case in point: Dunkirk. A 106 minute harrowing war film about one of the greatest military failings in British history, and released slap-bang in the middle of the summer blockbuster season.
Was everyone drunk?
It is the middle of 1940 and the Nazis menace has beaten back Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk. Close to 400,000 souls are trapped between the approaching German army and the icy cold of the English Channel.
Their paths intertwining, a selection of people come together in the face of overwhelming odds. A trio of young soldiers, a trio of RAF fighters, and a trio of British civilians must save as many as they can before being cut down by the unrelenting German beast.
A director must have faith in his actors. He must believe in and rely on their abilities to bring to life the character of the page. And in the first 20 minutes of Dunkirk, Nolan has truly shown his unwavering confidence in those under his employ.
Almost totally wordless, the opening scenes are a testament to how dialogue need not be the driving force in order to get across the intricacies of a character’s situation. In fact, the end goal of everyone in the film is pretty much distilled into one solitary image!
If anything, this stripped back approach is indicative of the whole movie. The entire feature is focused almost exclusively on those few miles of sandy shoreline. With no cutaways to far off generals or crying wives, there’s a sense of intimacy not usually seen in the average Hollywood war movie.
As we travel through the beaches, we meet a variety of characters. From the youthful soldiers just following orders (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles), to the beleaguered military leaders (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy), as well as the brave souls trying to aid them (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney.)
But you’ll note that I’ve not mentioned any of their character names. Mainly because, while the acting might be Oscar-calibre, the characterisation is next to none. With no clear protagonists or antagonists, the large majority of characters are essentially archetypes. Nothing more than the uniforms or costumes they inhabit.
To be fair, such a choice may have been in pursuit of the above mentioned minimalism that pervades each scene. By keeping all the characters down to their bare essentials (hell, we don’t even see a German solider!); there’s a sense that the drama comes not from emotionality, but rather the shared desire to merely live. That survival instinct, which is hard-wired deep down in each of us, is instead what we share with the besieged individuals that we see on screen.
Such on-screen stress is only heightened by the astounding cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema. As opposed to his grandiose work on Intersteller, Hoytema instead makes the close-up his BFF, helping to draw us into the tribulations so many young men had to endure.
Said sympathy pains are only compounded by the sterling sound work, both in the mix and the soundtrack. It’s only a shame that the same strength of vision was not afforded to the editing. While not terrible, the editing’s lack of linearity leads to the occasional confusion during the narrative. Considering his exceptional work on Inception, it is a true shame that editor Lee Smith could not repeat the trick here.
Of course, I must also address the elephant in the room (of which my 10 year old niece is very much aware; as she so eloquently shouted at me on my return home: HOW AMAZING WAS HARRY STYLES?)
And truth be told… He was very good. Not a scene stealer or distractor, but someone who embodies the desperation of a young man brought to the brink of his humanity. While not possessing the powers of a soothsayer, I nonetheless see bright things for this young man’s cinematic future.
While it doesn’t come close to the groundbreaking progress made in Inception or The Dark Knight due to its choppy editing and lack of characterisation; Dunkirk is nonetheless an astounding example of sound, cinematography, and direction, coming together to give a poignant insight into the events of those terrifying few days over 70 years ago.