Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Cinema, Dunkirk, Film, Film Review, Hans Zimmer, Harry Styles, Inception, Interstellar, Mark Rylance, Memento, Movie, Movie Review, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Tom Hardy
“Dunkirk” is the latest film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan; the man behind “The Dark Knight Trilogy”, “Memento”, “The Prestige”, “Inception”, and “Interstellar”. All of these films are visually and conceptually brilliant, so when I heard that Nolan was going to make a movie about a group of allied soldiers stranded in France I was surprised. War lends itself to film from a cinematography standpoint but to take on a true event in human history isn’t really Nolan’s style. His films, generally speaking, either belong to the sphere of science-fiction or have some kind of gimmick, whether it’s in their structure or their narrative.
As such, I went into “Dunkirk” with a degree of scepticism. Having seen the trailer I thought that it looked as though it could’ve been made by anyone, which was a problem for me because Nolan’s involvement was the only reason that I wanted to see the film. Fortunately, the final product oozes class as the cinematography and sound design create a tense and captivating experience which sensitively conveys the horror of war. It has its limits, in my opinion, because character development plays second fiddle to style, but it’s exceedingly well-made.
Nolan captures scenes from multiple angles, transitioning from stunning wide shots to claustrophobic close-ups in order to highlight the gravity of the situation both individually and collectively. The scale of the operation is clear as the camera pans over the beach and we see thousands of men awaiting their fate, and the fact that we don’t have one omnipotent protagonist means that we can appreciate the fact that everyone on that beach is vulnerable. They aren’t heroes who righteously fight an evil force as so many war films would have us believe; they’re frightened, tired, wounded men who simply want to go home.
One avenue for criticism in this film is its structure. I mentioned at the start of this review that Nolan’s films usually have a gimmick, so it was predictable that he took such an abstract approach to telling a human story. “Dunkirk” takes place on land (‘The Mole’), at sea (‘The Sea’), and in the air (‘The Air’), with different time periods being shown for each. Personally I was okay with this and I found it interesting to see Nolan return to a less linear narrative, but practically speaking it didn’t add to the tension in the film or provide as much clarity as a more standard structure would have.
This leads to another problem with “Dunkirk”, which is that the characters aren’t fully developed. This isn’t a damning criticism of the film because it’s not about any one character; the point is that a collective effort was made to get the soldiers home. It’s a story of survival and it’s important that the scale of situation is clear in order to make that story worthwhile. However, I feel that it would’ve been more emotionally resonant had it given us a sense of who the characters being saved were, because at the end of the film I didn’t know them any better than I did after watching the trailer. I can’t remember any of their names and I didn’t care what happened to them when I was watching, which is obviously a problem when the film is about an important event in human history.
Still, in a way this parallels the relationships which are built in war, and I think it’s slightly unfair to condemn a film for failing to do something that it didn’t intend on doing. You can criticise the decision to focus on style over substance and suggest an alternative, but whether or not this movie would’ve been better if it had concentrated on character development rather than cinematography is debateable.
Personally I would have enjoyed the film more if there had been a better balance between the two approaches, but to criticise “Dunkirk” because it isn’t character-driven is a bit like criticising a footballer for not scoring enough goals. If the player is a striker then the criticism is valid, but if the player plays in defence then the criticism misunderstands his primary purpose. Would he be a better player if he scored more goals? Probably. Would “Dunkirk” be a better movie if it had more developed characters? Yes. But being imperfect isn’t the same as being bad.
In “Dunkirk” there were only two sequences that I didn’t like; a sequence involving a grounded fishing trawler and the sequence which led up to the final scene. The reason that I didn’t like the fishing trawler sequence was that I thought it was less realistic than the rest of the film and also lacklustre in its execution, and the reason that I didn’t enjoy the sequence leading up to the final scene was that I thought it was overly emotional. Other than those two sequences I enjoyed the entire movie, even if it could’ve been better with a few careful tweaks.
So, as a study in filmmaking “Dunkirk” is superb. It’s hard to excessively praise the performances because it doesn’t focus on its characters, but at the same time no one stands out for the wrong reasons. Surprisingly, Harry Styles is fine and if you didn’t know that it was him you probably wouldn’t realise he was a pop star trying his hand at acting. The structure of the film was questionable and the characters weren’t fully developed, but the cinematography was gorgeous and Hans Zimmer’s score heightened the tension as the tempo built in the background. It’s technically strong, respects its audience, and for my money it’s one of the most assured movies of the summer so far. I highly recommend it.