Dunkirk (2017) Review
Dunkirk is directed and written by Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) and stars an ensemble cast that includes Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders, Inception), Mark Rylance (The BFG, Bridge of Spies), Tom Hardy (Legend, Mad Max: Fury Road), Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and pop sensation Harry Styles. "Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II". Dunkirk is the first guaranteed awards contender of the year. Is it overhyped or is it truly incredible?
After (the especially overhyped) Baby Driver, I am a little more wary when going into unanimously praised films as I've learnt it doesn't necessarily mean I will like the film. I didn't let my expectations get too high for the likes of The Big Sick or The Beguiled and I was pleasantly impressed. The same can be said for Dunkirk- a film I liked quite a bit. It's faultless. My only issues are down to personal preference- there is literally nothing Christopher Nolan or any of the other members of the creative team could do to improve Dunkirk. I would go as far as saying that this is a masterclass in filmmaking. Effectively tense, great sound mixing, mesmerising cinematography and a skilled cast. It may not be the typical summer blockbuster but just like any superhero, sci-fi or action film, it's worth rushing out to see.
The story of Dunkirk is one that has been overshadowed by the other occurrences during WW2. If I'm being honest, I actually knew nothing about this which made the film even more insightful but also shocking. However, Nolan didn't just decide to portray this story in a pedestrian way, he was much more clever. Nolan has made a genius creative decision by jumbling up the timeline. This makes the film consistently engaging and gripping. As soon as the Shivering Solider (Cillian Murphy) is seen in two scenes that were previously believed to be simultaneous, it becomes very clear that Nolan wants to keep the audience interested and hooked...and it certainly thought. It truly is an example of narrative brilliance and Nolan really knows how to tell a story in his own way. I also liked how contained the film's plot was- it all occurs from the perspective of the UK soldiers, there is no actual visual of the opposing side (other than their planes) and it's all one on-going event with no time jumps, other than the deliberately jumbled timeline. This heightens the tension as it makes the horrific event inescapable, you just have to keep watching. There are some really discomforting moments that include a pilot that nearly drowns, soldiers that nearly drown and endless bombings. What was really touching though was when all the everyday and mundane locals came to offer their aid. This actually made me really proud to not only be British, but a human. In times of fear and suffering, everybody seems to drop any conflicting beliefs and values and unite. It was a powerful moment.
There are no performances in Dunkirk that outshine the others. This group of gifted actors work really well as an ensemble. I think the best thing is that many of them are practically unknowns and the styling choices along with their acting ability really makes them feel like normal people. For me, this really added a level of humanity to soldiers- they are so often portrayed as athletic, strong and heroic individuals, it was nice to see a truer reflection that they are just everyday people who want to fight for their county. Especially with WW2, many young boys didn't have a choice, it was a requirement to join the armed forces so it makes even more sense why thy the actors/characters act the way they do. For somebody who hasn't worked professionally in the film industry all that much, Fionn Whitehead did a fantastic job. A lot of the film was told from Tommy's (Whitehead) perspective so it was vital that Whitehead could hold the film on his shoulders and boy, he could. Whitehead should be expecting calls from studios left, right and centre. What a great start to a very promising career. The film does feature some acting veterans of its own - Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh are all very experienced and skilled and it really shows here. Each of them do exactly what they need to and impress. Other than that one infamous extra who messed up in the teaser trailer (and still does here), everybody pulls their weight in the cast. I'd like to give Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney a mention because they are all superb. Finally, Harry Styles. The casting of Styles has both helped and hindered Dunkirk prior to its release - because of him, the film's audience has widened but it also meant that his casting kind of overshadowed the film and the important story it was going to tell. Everybody was also wary as to whether Styles could actually act. In the film itself, I found Styles to have an 'elephant in the room' kind of effect- I was just waiting for him to appear and when he did, I was just distracted - constantly critiquing and analysing his every move (towards the start of the film, he wasn't too great). However, as the film went on and Style's character, Alex, became more interesting, I was more and more impressed by Styles and I can firmly say he can act. I actually applaud Nolan for taking a risk with Styles and giving him arguably the most interesting character in the whole film. Alex is the most unlikeable- in a time of fear, he becomes a monster- bullying and isolating easy targets. Styles sold the nastiness well. Alex is also underwhelmed when he finally gets to the UK- all he cares about is that they didn't complete their mission, he shows no thanks for still being alive and completely ignores Tommy when he is reading how the story has been portrayed in the newspaper. Even though he is unlikeable, it's also important Alex is like this- not all soldiers would have been happy with how things concluded and his character was a true reflection of how some would have acted. Dunkirk has good performances that portray very real characters.
Let's talk about the film's strongest point, the sound mixing, editing and composure. Hans Zimmer has put together an excellent score that really heightens the intensity and tension of the film. The ticking sound effect is utilised brilliantly and cleverly foreshadows horrendous moments that are about to occur. Dunkirk's script is very minimal so the score had to be good and wow, just wow. Zimmer created something that perfectly matched Nolan's vision as I haven't felt tension in a film so strongly since Sicario. Not only was what was going on on-screen disturbing but the sounds really made the film so much more intensified. All of the mixing and editing was done so seamlessly- this isn't something I usually notice in a film but it's done so well in Dunkirk, it's hard to not notice it.
The cinematography is also mesmerisingly breath-taking. I wish I had seen this film in its 70mm or IMAX form as I've sure it would have done wonders for how the film looked. This is the type of film that has been made for the big screen so see it in one while you can. Nolan uses a vast variety of shot types and techniques to elevate Dunkirk from being your ordinary war film. The shots from the POV of the plane were my favourites- they were thrilling but also stunning. Nolan and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema have done a fantastic job at capturing and portraying a really picturesque and beautiful landscape during such a grim and horrific time. However, when the film asked for a darker tone, Nolan and Hoytema delivered and made it darker and grimmer. Even though the plane POV shots looked brilliant, I just wish they felt a little bit more exciting as that was somewhere the tension and thrill seemed to pause quite often.
Everyone can breathe, Christopher Nolan has not let us down with Dunkirk- a masterclass in filmmaking. Nolan proves with this film that there is always a creative and unique way to tell a story, even when it comes to a story that is literally written in stone by history. The timeline in Dunkirk is a genius idea that is sure to be remembered and deserves the world of praise alone. Another incredibly strong element is the sound mixing and editing as well as the score composed by Hans Zimmer. It heightens the intensity and really makes Dunkirk a gripping and sometimes discomforting film. The ensemble cast do a great job- everybody pulls their weight and nobody slips behind. Dunkirk is certainly the hot ticket right now as I'm sure we'll be seeing more of this cast, especially the ones who were previously unknown. The cinematography is another stellar thing about Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan rarely drops the ball during this film - consistently gripping, engaging, tense and powerful. A film that restores faith in humanity. This is a film. This is filmmaking. Dunkirk is exceptional and I've only dropped points due to small issues I have that are simply personal preference. You won't be disappointed.