There aren’t many rules I tend to follow as a journalist. I keep my schedule fairly loose, and I usually review something that interests me, not simply something that’s popular. But one of the few rules I try to keep to is not watching trailers. The reason behind this is that trailers are little more than marketing material, and will often taint my opinion of the finished product, even if its of a film I’m really keen to watch. I also like to go into a film knowing as little about it as possible in order to let the story do the work, such as in Baby Driver. I was, however, exposed to the trailer for Dunkirk some months ago, and my anticipation of the film did not lessen until I saw it. So was it worth the wait? Does it live up to the hype? Has Christopher Nolan ever made a bad film? Take a wild guess.
As the name of this online journal might suggest, war films are something of a speciality of mine, and I’ve always been disappointed by the fact that Hollywood has dominated this sector of the industry purely through the medium of proud heroic characters, a mournfully patriotic score usually composed by John Williams and some nice old fashioned explosions. Dunkirk opens with one of its most powerful weapons: silence. The use of sound in this film is nothing short of sublime, with the aforementioned silence creating a fantastic juxtaposition with the harsh, noisy chaos of the few times we actually hear gunfire. And the gunfire in this is not dampened in any way. It’s loud, and its unpleasant, and had the audience of the cinema wincing. The soundtrack, albeit a very minimalist score by Hans Zimmer, often merges with the sound effects, so at certain points you have no idea if what you’re hearing is an orchestral drone or the scream of a dive-bomber’s siren, keeping the tension at an almost sickening height.
Visually the film makes for comment too. I don’t know if this was done purposefully, but there is an interesting use of colour in several of the scenes, as though the saturation has been turned up in order to evoke the early days of colour cinema, like The Battle Of Britain or A Bridge Too Far. In terms of scale, the evacuation portrayed here didn’t not seem as impressive as that shown in Atonement, but in a way it didn’t need to be. Claustrophobia was required to really bring out the sheer panic and chaos of certain scenes, such as the torpedoing of a troopship, and Nolan pulls this off terrifically with excellent camera work, and the aforementioned use of sound.
Finally, whilst the film requires little involvement from the few characters in the cast in order to be a phenomenal film, the actors at work here seal the deal. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead is very compelling as the appropriately named Tommy, and Harry Styles does a superb job as Alex, the misplaced Highlander willing to do anything to get home. Apparently Nolan was unaware of the singer’s fame when he cast him, which I think speaks volumes about Styles’ acting chops. Furthermore Cillian Murphy steals the show in places as the unnamed PTSD-riddled officer, and Mark Rylance gives a subtle yet powerful performance as Dawson, one of the many civilian mariners sent as part of the evacuation. Oh and Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire pilot in one of the more badass roles in this film, and lets be honest, it wouldn’t be a Christopher Nolan film without him.
All in all, I wish there was more I could say about Dunkirk, but realistically it must be experienced in order to be understood, as nothing like it has hit mainstream cinema arguably since Saving Private Ryan. What with two biopics about Winston Churchill being released within barely six months of each other, and the centenary of Passchendaele, it feels like it’s been some time since a British action from the Second World War has been depicted, and for it to be this powerful reminds me that, as a film industry we needn’t outsource this stuff to America all the time. Dunkirk is, to my mind, one of the best war films I have ever seen, and having seen A LOT of war films I think I can say that with some confidence. I’ve heard people say that the narrative is confusing and that using real ships instead of CGI detracted from the scale of things, and to those people I say this: Dunkirk has managed to depict a WWII naval action far better than Pearl Harbour could ever do, and with barely showing a single drop of blood. Sometimes less is more, and in this case it is. I cannot recommend Dunkirk highly enough. I consider it a matter of civic duty to go and watch it, because it tells a story that everybody needs to know.