Review: Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk is a film that has been long anticipated by a wide audience. I first saw the trailer at Oz Comic-con in March, and the buzz surrounding it even back then was intense. I’m going to be brutally honest here though; I wasn’t one of those excited people, the trailer didn’t draw me in all. I will usually choose to watch a movie based on the perceived depth to the story; I look for character development, backgrounds, and the small historical details done right – all that boring stuff most cinema-goers I know prefer to skim over in favour of big explosions and awe-inspiring special effects.

My first impression of the Dunkirk trailer was that the film would end up being a long showy game of cat and mouse in which the mouse eventually triumphs. For some reason – and I’m still working out why – I thought that Dunkirk was going to be one of those war films which are dominated by blazing guns and are generally ruined by a far too patriotic and completely unbelievable ending in which the heroes save the day and win the war. I couldn’t put that pre-conceived vision together with the historical facts of Dunkirk, and as such dismissed the film as probably not worth going to – at least not in any hurry.

I really should have known better.

Dunkirk is a stunningly beautiful and very artistic film. I feel odd writing that about a war film, but I can’t stress it enough. The best part of this film for me was the effort put into the details. I read after watching it that many of the props – for example, the civilian boats – were from the actual retreat from Dunkirk in 1940. What I especially liked about it was that Nolan managed to focus on an extremely demoralising and brutal piece of history without making it horrifyingly traumatic for the audience. There was no blood or gore and yet you still feel raw at the end. Emotion is a major feature of this film. Even though I walked out of the cinema knowing only two of the character’s names and armed with nothing but a glimpse of their backstories, I felt connected regardless. This film is not about character profiles. It is about the desperate faces of those diving for cover on the beaches; the determination of those racing to their rescue; the helplessness of the pilots as they struggle to defend the impossible; and the long, desolate queues of soldiers praying for home. This isn’t the story of a single battle or a lone soldier – it is an account of the nature of war and the inevitable costs. I must say, Zimmer’s accompanying soundtrack is breath-taking and deserves a lot of credit. Without it, I don’t believe the film would have had the same impact.

As someone who loves a good story-telling technique, the layers in Dunkirk surprised me. On the surface, it is a very simple story – 400,000 men are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, with little in the way of cover and means of evacuation. The navy, along with the help of civilian boats rush to retrieve the men before German forces devastate their numbers. I was expecting the film to mainly follow a single character throughout the evacuation, and initially it begins this way. It quickly however draws in several other perspectives, weaving them together to form a much more encompassing and detailed picture of the circumstances. To do this, Nolan artfully combines wide sweeping shots with up-close-and-personal filming techniques which leave you feeling as if you could be running down the beach besides them. The down side of being artistic with presentation and structure though, is that you run the risk of your audience getting muddled along the way or in the worst-case scenario – losing them altogether.

Dunkirk features a very warped time-line into which the audience is thrown with little warning. There are three perspectives being told simultaneously but at different speeds. The result is a little jarring if you don’t notice this early-on. I personally didn’t realise that we were jumping back and forth in time with each perspective until about halfway through the film and as such was distracted by the constantly changing conditions – one moment it was full daylight, the next it was the dead of night, a moment after the sun was setting. At first, it was perplexing how time could be moving so quickly in certain areas when not much was happening in the meantime elsewhere. That said, once I did eventually cotton on to the shifting timeline I did really appreciate the amount of effort put into the editing of the film to make it come together so neatly at the end. To have three different time streams come together so effortlessly in a cinematically stunning conclusion really highlights Nolan’s ability to tell a story. And to be completely honest, many others probably had no problem in picking up the structure early-on. In hindsight, there were hints to the amount of time that was passing in conversations which I must admit to having missed the first-time round.

Overall, this film is an amazing example of cinematic genius that did not deserve my initial doubts at all. Dunkirk is not a film revolving around false heroics, but rather a film of honesty. I do believe that it will be talked about for months to come, and will be in cinemas for a while yet. Due to the intensity of the filming and soundtrack, this is a film that is best seen on the big screen, so be sure to not miss out.

Score: 8 out of 10.

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