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Dunkirk (2017) - Review

Dunkirk

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IT’S not overstating things in the slightest to describe Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk as an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

A vivid, heart-pounding, emotional rollercoaster of a film, Dunkirk is also one of the most immersive experiences you could ever wish to endure. But therein lies its genius. By putting the viewer at the forefront of the action – whether on land, in the air or at sea, which is how the film divides itself – you feel every emotion, whether it’s fear, anger, compassion or relief. And you endure every bullet and/or bomb blast.

Nolan’s film is akin to watching that first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan stretched across 107 of them, yet minus the blood and guts and with added existential elements.

But that’s not to say it’s been toned down or sanitised. The horror of war remains intact. It’s etched across the faces of those trying to survive. It’s drawn from the frantic breaths of the men and women trying to keep their heads above water.

Nolan’s film is breath-taking in both senses of the word. And it’s an energy-sapping endurance test that’s also capable of exhilarating in a cinematic sense. Crucially, however, it never loses sight of the enormity of the historical events it depicts.

By putting you into the heart of the action, Nolan enables you to participate – and there are elements that are difficult to shake off, such as the shrieking sound of German dive bombers, or the asthma-inducing claustrophobia of being below decks once a ship has been torpedoed. As a tribute to what it took to survive those beaches, the film is an unqualified success.

And yet there’s a sense of triumph too – of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, of finding hope in the depths of despair, and retaining decency and humanity in the face of unrelenting hell.

Dunkirk unfolds from three differing perspectives. Firstly, there’s a squaddie named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) whose repeated attempts to escape the beach, or The Mole, with fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) appear doomed to fail.

Then there’s the Spitfire pilots, led by Tom Hardy’s Farrier, who offer the last line of defence from the aerial assault. And, finally, from the home front, there’s Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local helper George (Barry Keoghan), who join the people’s armada in a bid to rescue the troops stranded on the beach.

Nolan toys with the various timelines and occasionally allows them to collide, sometimes replaying certain key scenes from different perspectives. But while this sounds like filmmaking trickery that could take you out of the action, it only heightens the film’s ability to grip as your own perspective changes in line with the story Nolan is following. It’s a clever device that somehow heightens the tension.

Hans Zimmer’s score, too, ratchets up the pressure cooker scenario. When it’s not providing a ticking clock, it’s putting up colossal walls of sound (a la Inception) that threaten to deafen as much as those screaming men or screeching bombers.

Nolan, meanwhile, barely allows you to breath, such is the tautness of his storytelling. Danger is ever present. And yet, there’s room for character too, which is where his talented ensemble come into their own.

Rylance imparts compassion and a father’s wisdom into his role as the boat captain at the forefront of the rescue operation, while Hardy conveys stoic heroism using mostly his eyes (given his face is obscured behind his fighter mask). Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy deliver the technical stuff (details of the operation, the state of play of the troops, etc), as well as stiff upper lip defiance, impressively, with Branagh afforded several unnerving close-ups to convey the horror or admiration of what the audience is about to see. He does it brilliantly.

Dunkirk

But it’s the unknown Whitehead, plucked from acting obscurity (he was working as a barista when he went for his audition) that perhaps emerges with the biggest acting plaudits; his frightened everyman Tommy scrambling about for survival, no matter what it takes. He effortlessly conveys the indefatigable spirit of the soldiers on the beach, who never knew when to quit even when their backs were up against the wall. And yet he imbues it with elements of naivety (befitting his age), selfishness, selflessness and bravery.

Barnard is great too, conveying much of his own journey in silent form, yet wearing his fatigue and fear on his sleeve throughout; while even Harry Styles, as another young soldier who becomes embroiled in Tommy’s battle for survival, does what he does well, almost naturally tapping into the anger and angst of his own predicament.

Yet throughout this film, there are performances or technical achievements to savour. Cillian Murphy shines as a traumatised soldier picked up by Mr Dawson’s boat (a glimpse into the psychological toll of surviving), as does Jack Lowden, as another of the Spitfire pilots.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography excels, contributing to the immersive experience that absolutely has to be experienced on the biggest screen possible (preferably IMAX), while Lee Smith’s editing is as tight as you’d expect, enhancing that ticking clock, race-against-time sensation.

Nolan, meanwhile, deserves the highest praise possible for overseeing a film (which he also scripted) that comes as close to perfection as you can get. A long-held passion project for the director, he nevertheless keeps things lean (there’s absolutely no excess) and strikes a faultless balance between horror and heroism.

Dunkirk therefore feels both fiercely patriotic and resolutely anti-war. It is a monumental celebration of the spirit of Dunkirk that doesn’t shirk away from the wastefulness or cruelty of combat. It really is easy to run out of superlatives for this one.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 107mins
UK Release Date: July 21, 2017