Even though he has been a bit prickly in recent years about things like Netflix, many agree that Christopher Nolan is one of the finest directors in the world at the moment. Unlike a lot of film makers, he can make true epics that appeal equally to a general audience and us snooty critics. His films have been so good that The Dark Knight Rises seen as a dip in quality for him. Heck, I wasn’t a huge fan of Interstellar either but that was still better than a lot of movies I see for this blog. So can his latest film Dunkirk live up to the high standards that Christopher Nolan has set for himself?
A British military disaster beckons as the Germans close in on thousands of troops on Dunkirk beach during World War 2 with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, Him), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, Citadel) and Alex (Harry Styles, First Feature Film) all trying to find a desperate way to escape. Meanwhile RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy, Inception) tries to fend off German attackers from the air while Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney, The Last Post) and friend George (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) set sail to Dunkirk in a normal fishing boat as part of a programme to save as many soldiers as possible.
The thing that will strike you immediately about the film is it’s sound design. This is something that is often forgotten and ignored by many people which is the Oscar for best sound design usually just goes to the best film rather than the best sound design. Anyway, this movie’s sound makes it an incredible experience and its easily the best thing about the movie. All the sounds of the war are dialled up to make sure that you feel like you are in this battle with them. Even outside the IMAX this movie puts you right there on that beach with bombs exploding all around you while the spitfires flying above you are in a deadly dogfight with a band of messerschmits. There’s also this brilliant metronome in the sound design which makes everything more intense because you think you are counting down to something even more explosive than you are already seeing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat even when things seem calm.
As you can see from the synopsis, this is a movie that has several concurrent plots that don’t really interact each other. You have the soldiers on the beach trying to get off said beach in increasingly desperate ways, there’s the RAF pilots above trying to do all they can to stop their boats being sunk by bombers and you have the civilian boat which ends up picking up a shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later) whose ship was sunk. All offer very different perspectives on this battle. You have the valiant civilians who are willing to risk their lives on an idea which on paper will probably end up killing them, with the shellshocked soldier’s desperation to stay away from Dunkirk only reinforcing how mad this plan was. You have the air battle to try and give those on land some time, and then the increasing desperation of those in land shows you the panic of all involved. Having all these separate stories keeps the movie fresh and going at a frenetic pace which makes the experience all the better.
Of course it’s interesting to see how the character work is done in a movie that’s more about the overall experience than it is about character studies. If we are being honest here, the soldiers on the beach have very little character. They don’t have none, each has different levels of optimism about the whole affair which definitely comes into play towards the end. But that story thread is all about the various ways they try to get off the beach and how close they get to death on multiple occasions and the soldiers who unfortunately did not get off that beach. This does at least meant there’s no stretching of Harry Styles’ acting ability. Still mystified about his casting. The character is all on that little fishing boat with Mark Rylance putting in another stunning performance as this old man whose got so much quiet resolve that would end up defining the British in World War 2.
And as a Brit, I do have to say this movie makes me feel vary patriotic. Dunkirk has always been a point of pride for the British which may seem odd from the outside. It was a military disaster that put the United Kingdom on the backfoot in World War 2. But yet it is taught in all of our schools as a massive success because while it was a military loss, it was a propaganda win. All those Brits who bravely took their leisure boats across the Channel to bring soliders back to this country put their lives at risk and to see such an audacious plan actually work are such an inspiration to those of us who live in this country today. I’m not sure how much the rest of the world knows about Dunkirk but I hope that if you didn’t know about it before that you get why Dunkirk Spirit is a phrase over here after watching this movie. Because that’s what this movie gets most of all, why us Brits have so much pride in this event.
So this is the point of the review where I have to moan about something and as you can probably already tell, there’s very little bad to say about the movie. Maybe the inclusion of Harry Styles is a bit distracting considering he is a massive pop star in scenes with actors who aren’t that well-known. And it also does the thing where the aspect ratio changes between scenes. Luckily it’s not as bad as Transformers: The Last Knight which liked to change aspect ratios during the actual action, but it is still a bit disconcerting. These are minor nitpicks though.
Dunkirk came second in my Top 10 Films of 2017 list and watching it again proves that I was correct to put it so high. It deliver in every area, there is incredibly intense action which throws you right into this war with these boyish looking young soldiers. It has truly magnificent sound design which makes you think there is a Spitfire flying in your living room and just enough character so you care deeply about all the characters on screen as they desperately try to survive against all the odds. This is not just one of the best films of 2017, it may well be one of Christopher Nolan’s best.