With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan eschews the traditional war movie narrative for a lyrical yet potently realistic depiction of the 1940 evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of France as German shells rained down.
There’s no war-room strategy sessions, no soldiers talking about their best girl back home and no Rambo-like action sequences. Instead, Nolan recounts the evacuation of Dunkirk as a kind of cinematic symphony with long but intense sequences featuring powerful music and minimal dialogue. In slightly compressed time he shifts back and forth between different characters: young soldiers (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles among others) who are desperately trying to get off the beach, a grieving father (Mark Rylance) who, along with his sons and a flotilla of civilians, sets off across the channel on a rescue mission, a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) attempting to establish order amid the bombing and slaughter and an ace spitfire pilot (an actor revealed late in the film) trying to extinguish the aerial terror.
The performances are uniformly excellent but Nolan’s directorial style distances us from characters, which at times makes the film feel a little cold. Those who prize character development above all else in cinema may find it hard to embrace this film.
Also, the film has also been criticized for its lack of diversity in depicting those involved in the evacuation. There are very few non-white faces among the soldiers despite the forces consisting of troops from Morocco, India and Algeria among other nations. Also, there are very few women present despite females having been involved in the rescue mission. Some have also suggested that in depicting a heroic and hasty exit from Europe the film is pro-Brexit. While the latter criticism is very subjective and questionable given that the subject of Dunkirk is perfectly justifiable material for a war time drama regardless of contemporary politics, the lack of diversity is concerning.
While the film raises political concerns, on a technical and artistic level it is a remarkable. Most impressively, Nolan has largely avoided cgi in favour of practical effects which make this a much more powerful and realistic experience than most contemporary war movies. Here, a dog fight between two real planes is far more thrilling than the ultra-complex video game-like cgi aerial battles to which we’re subjected in most current war and sci-fi films. He has also structured this film in a unique way, depicting events in close to real time while steadily ratcheting up the intensity as the soldiers’ situation worsens.
Although this is not a gory film like Saving Private Ryan, watching a sustained depiction of bombings and soldiers under intense stress for two nearly hours can be draining so this may not be everyone’s idea of entertaining cinema.
In a number of ways this is a questionable depiction of history but it is also a powerful artistic statement and an impressive comeback from a director who seemed to lose many acolytes with his brain-boggling previous film Interstellar.
Nick’s rating: ***1/2
Genre: War/ historical.
Director(s): Christopher Nolan.
Release date: 20th July 2017.
Running time: 106 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
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