Ever since the trailer for Dunkirk was released, the hype behind this film has been building rapidly. With its intense imagery, heart stopping action and a fleeting glance of that 1D bloke, there has been much anticipation over the latest goods from Christopher Nolan.
Let’s be frank. There have been a lot of war films over the years. Like, a lot. More recent portrayals have been noticeably defined by their unapologetic violence and graphic depictions of the horrors that go hand in hand with war. Although I understand the motivation behind this approach, it was refreshing to see a war film that doesn’t make me squirm and vomit into my popcorn (I’m squeamish).
A different kind of visceral
Dunkirk is only a 12 certificate and it does not rely on graphic violence or gore to spark a reaction. Yet it is harrowing and nail-biting and stressful and inspiring all the same. The film creates a genuinely visceral experience without assaulting you with grotesque or bloodied imagery. Instead it plunges you right into the heart of the action from the first second of the film, so you feel as though you are walking alongside the characters. You feel their fear, you understand their motivations and you engage with their anxiety of where the next bomb will fall and who the next gunshots will hit.
Photo credit: Indiewire.com
Nolan’s depiction is unique amongst war films in that it does not shove dramatised heroism in your face. Of course the heroism of those who fought should be celebrated but there is also a need to show the other face of war: the basic human instinct for survival. And sometimes this means being selfish, sometimes it means you want to live over someone else and sometimes it means you have to give up the fight to run home. Afterall, Dunkirk was never about fighting or winning; it’s about a retreat.
Epic setup, close-up stories
With 400,000 men trapped on a beach, Dunkirk is a setup of epic proportions. Yet Nolan instead provides a more personal dimension by honing in on small snippets of the action and individual characters. To add a further layer of interest, we are introduced to three different perspectives: from the beach, from the sea and from the air. In true Nolan style, each takes place over a differing period of time: one week, one day and one hour respectively, but they are all happening simultaneously.
Confused? I definitely made that sound more confusing than it actually is. I promise it’s not mind-bending like Inception or Interstellar.
Photo credit: Flickreel.com
The close up on individual journeys enables you to get emotionally involved in their stories. It is through this intimacy that we become astutely aware of the wider, immense scale but without the need for a Hollywood-ised (it’s a word, deal with it) spectacle.
There is no grand narrative in the story; it’s not about winning the war, or even a battle. It’s a simple reflection on a desperate yearning for home. Their situation on the beach is made all the more infuriating in that they are so close to home, yet so far from finding a way there. “You can practically see it from here…”, reflects Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander as the faint outline of the familiar white cliffs taunt them whilst they fight to stay alive.
Sound and music
Dunkirk could easily be a silent film, with dialogue kept to a bare minimum in favour of a more visual experience. Without a great deal of sustained conversation, the sound effects and score are all the more important. Hans Zimmer has created a harrowing and tense score; one that echoes the waves as they rock and then crash, or takes you by surprise as the falling bombs do too.
Photo credit: Firstpost.com
Just as the cinematography places the audience right at the heart of the action, so too does the intense sound effects. I couldn’t help but notice the ladies in front of me holding their hands over their ears as the dive bombers went screeching past the screen. The result is a truly immersive cinematic experience.
Dunkirk excels in its ability to provide a visceral sense of the anxiety and crippling fear endured by the soldiers without the graphic gore that we have grown so used to seeing in war films. It is wonderfully British in its nuanced approach and also for the recurring references to cups of tea, a symbol of familiarity and of home.
Dunkirk is a nail-biting experience that will make you gasp, cry and smile. I think you’re going to love it.
Star rating: ****
If you enjoyed my Dunkirk film review then check out the other film reviews I’ve done.