Oscar Nominee 2018 Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017)
Dir: Christopher Nolan

I’m no fan of war movies and find depictions of those wounded on the battlefield as harrowing as they should be. Yet this film manages to tell a cross-section of experiences without being overly gruesome, while still being every bit as powerful in a very restrained runtime.

In WWII British forces were pinned to the coast of northern France, stranded on the beach at Dunkirk with the enemy fast approaching and no plan for escape. This film depicts the experiences of a handful of characters who have a part in the evacuation and rescue effort.

I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s work, having seen and enjoyed all his feature films. This is the first time he has made a film based on real events so I was interested in seeing how well he would be able to handle that and how well his skills as a visual storyteller would still come across. The result, this is an impressively directed film that handles one of the most interesting episodes of a frequently depicted war in a way that’s masterful in its simplicity and effectiveness. Nolan cleverly develops full narrative threads in three main distinct areas, land, sea and air. The director again goes for an enhanced level of complexity involving the perception of time, as there are not only three different storylines that tie into the evacuation, these threads run over different timescales, of a week, a day and an hour, yet manage to tie into each other and intersect in slightly disorienting but subtle ways.

You can never really expect to represent all the experiences of the military from every viewpoint, though the film does manage to touch on many and gives what might be seen as a cross-section of soldiers experiences as the characters are composite and fictional, none of whom takes centre stage, though a few performances do stand out in as certain characters are focused on. A few well-established actors are in commanding roles, with the younger and less-recognised actors (bar one exception I’ll come to in a moment) in the roles of young privates. Nolan’s frequent collaborator Tom Hardy is again hidden behind a mask as a Spitfire pilot, with Kenneth Branagh as a commander in charge of evacuating to ships from the pier.

Unlike most films, this doesn’t concern itself with the personal lives of the characters, keeping their experiences at times broadly representative of the situation, but that also leads to a little anaemia in the dialogue, with some characters having very little of note or substance to say. Realistically, there’s no time for introductions and pleasantries, so there’s a good purpose to the way it steers away from that common way of telling the story, still, it feels odd to many who are used to the emotional investment being created through learning personal stories of the characters. There aren’t many clear ‘lead’ characters, it’s truly an ensemble with some characters in the forefront of each time thread.

One Direction’s Harry Styles does star significantly in the film as one of the young privates, though he doesn’t sing or anything awkward like that thankfully. He’s actually pretty good and I found it easy enough to forget he was a world-famous popstar and heartthrob, his acting was really good enough to make his character work and his substantial role was far more than the fleeting cameo I was initially expecting. Christopher Nolan has said he was cast on the merits of his audition and not as a draw for audiences, though it was one of the most prevalent angles of media coverage about the film.

Making extensive use of brilliant prop work and effects, it’s a brilliantly detailed and gorgeous film. Much of the effects work was done practically with a variety of techniques. Many things had to be adjusted for the use of IMAX cameras which were used extensively. The aerial scenes were done by taking actual planes into the sky as well as some models, eschewing the computer rendered methods that are commonplace in most big budget action films. For the little ships scenes, actual little boats were restored to sail the channel. This attention to detail doesn’t go unnoticed. Things feel real because they are. This is one of those few films that I would really like to watch with an audio commentary from Nolan to hear more about how things were filmed because that would be fascinating and there are many featurettes on the blu-ray to that effect.

There’s not a lot of gore, hardly any at all in fact. It’s far from ‘Hacksaw Ridge‘ in so many ways, primarily that it isn’t divided in focus between the frontline and the home lives of the characters, it’s completely in the war zone in setting and focus, save some brief scenes in the English harbour where the little ships originate. Tension is not built by showing increasingly harrowing scenes, but through sustained peril and frequent setbacks.

Adding to the immersive impact and tension is the sound work, along with a nominated score by Hans Zimmer. All the soundscape, effects and sound mixing is incredible. Persistent ticking, a reminder of time and almost equatable to a rapid heartbeat is featured throughout the film, unsettling and urgent. There’s also extensive use of an effect called the ‘Shepard tone’ to add building tension, something I watched an interesting video about it before I saw the film, though while I was in the cinema I wasn’t consciously thinking about how the effect was being used but I did feel the impact of it.

It’s going to win things, of that there’s no doubt. I’m aware that it hasn’t had the same reception on the west of the Atlantic though, I think this is going to be the film that the BAFTAs and Oscars diverge most on. In the context of what I’ve seen so far, I can see it sweeping the British awards, while the Oscars may just award it with a few nice technical trophies, unless it manages to be a surprise big winner on the night, which it has all the qualities to do.

‘Dunkirk’ was nominated for a handful of Golden Globes, it has now been nominated for 8 Academy Awards and an equal number of BAFTA nominations including in categories such as Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Editing at both. It’s available to rent and buy on all the main formats from wherever you like to get your media. Surprisingly short at only 106 minutes, it gets the point across effectively without giving you a head full of gruesome images, making us understand that the characters want to get home safe even if it doesn’t delve into their personal reasons why. I’ve seen it both in the cinema and at home, the former being undertandably more powerful though it worked very well in both settings. 


6 thoughts on “Oscar Nominee 2018 Review: Dunkirk

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