Dunkirk Film Review
Empty your pockets for the biggest screen you can find – Dunkirk is all about the experience.
Sometimes a film is such a marvellous spectacle, the visual display eclipses its shortcomings. Having seen Dunkirk at IMAX Melbourne’s 1570 film presentation, I can say that when it comes to Christopher Nolan’s latest; the bigger the better. You’ll want the theatre shuddering as the bombs drop, the gun shots thumping in your chest and Hans Zimmer’s score leaving your nerves in tatters. This way, you’ll be too dazzled to be irked by its shortcomings.
The film is a retelling of the battle at Dunkirk, in which some 300,000 British soldiers were stranded in the German-occupied Dunkirk vicinity. The soldiers lived in deplorable conditions, were denied water, food and left to rot while British soldiers elsewhere were being welcomed home as heroes. Nolan sets this up quickly, using text across the screen to inform audiences of where they are and what’s going on. The film is then split into three different sections, each occurring over varying spans of time. On land, for one week, the soldiers await rescue on the beach; on the sea, over one day, a sea captain (Mark Rylance) and his two sons sail their small houseboat towards the beaches of Dunkirk; and in the air, over one hour, a pilot (Tom Hardy) guns down enemy planes bombing stranded soldiers.
This tricky timeline is the only narrative conceit we’re so used to seeing in Nolan movies, but it’s used so effectively you’re not likely to notice it’s happening at all. You won’t be trying to unpack the layers of plot developments and how they all sync up at the end as Inception (2010) forced you to, because Dunkirk is more about cinematic grandeur than complex narrative tricks.
Shot largely in 70mm film and with IMAX cameras, it’s clear the whole team wants viewers to be absorbed, if not overwhelmed, by the spectacle of war. Huge swathes of sky, sand, and sea fill the screen while pilots, ships and haggard soldiers are often huddled together or dotting the landscape, dwarfed by the immensity of their hopeless situation. It’s these aspects of the film, and the tremendous dogfighting in the air, that ensure Dunkirk leaves an impression. A particular sequence in which the camera lies low on the beach as bombs drop, the bursts of sand creeping closer to Fionn Whitehead’s soldier Tommy, crouched in the sand, shows Nolan knows how to get the most out of the technology at his disposal. These spectacular set pieces are contrasted with handheld camera work, the lens following the soldiers running through the streets from enemy gunfire, or as Alex (Harry Styles) and his crew desperately try to plug up holes in their dank hull as it rapidly fills up with water. It’s both a testament to Nolan’s mastery over visual language that he balances these filmic styles so well, and to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytemer and his camera crew, lugging around these bloody massive IMAX cameras on the sand.
Despite its grand spectacle, Dunkirk is really a series of human vignettes contributing to one grand narrative. As a whole, the thing really works, tied together with Hans Zimmer’s most tense, thrilling orchestral work yet. Broken up into parts, however, it has to be said that each vignette is weighed down by a lack of character. The dialogue is sparse and the performances are intense, especially Cillian Murphy as a battle fatigued soldier taken aboard by Rylance’s sea captain, but beyond the historical significance, Nolan’s script (working without his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan) gives us little reason to care about these individual human beings. Few have names, none have backstories, Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot has both voice and face obscured, and the German enemy are represented by explosions, planes flying overhead and gloating pamphlets raining down on the stranded soldiers – they are an unseen force of death.
Nolan and his team are unified in aiming to immerse audiences in this cinematic world. They massively succee— Dunkirk is exciting, tense and largely unforgettable. Its lack of character is indeed made up for in spectacle, but it irked me, and I don’t doubt some audience members will find it bothersome, too.