At university I remember doing a course called ‘War and Film,’ a broad course charting representations of modern conflict in cinema. As we arrived for one of several weeks on World War Two there were two introductory films. The first film was “Saving Private Ryan”, Spielberg’s incredibly moving morality tale about the value of a single life in the midst of world ending conflict. The second film - the majority of that class hadn’t seen - had a most divisive reaction. A younger, less discerning me had to exclaim; “what an absolutely pretentious piece of sh*t.” That film was Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.”
Malick’s poetic musings, overlapping narration from hard to place everyman characters is an examination of the impulse of war in human nature that however perverse, feels as established as wind bending grass on rolling hills. “The Thin Red Line,” pushed the wrong button in my conscious mind; but weaselled its way into my subconscious thought so much so that the images haunted me. It’s a film that demanded to be revisited, and today, it’s one of my favourite films and arguably one of the best films about the very nature of war that I’ve ever witnessed. “Dunkirk,” feels like a bridge between those two films.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film “Dunkirk” is a technical wonder. The jaw-dropping IMAX 70mm cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema (who lensed “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Her” and “Interstellar”), precision editing from Nolan’s regular collaborator Lee Smith and deafening and terrifying sound editing from Richard King et al create a staggering and immersive experience.
Nolan toys with cinematic temporality in his most overt and structured way to date. Using title cards at the beginning of the film we’re told that we’re following a week in the lives of soldiers desperately trying to survive and escape their shrinking expanse of beach; we jump aboard the vessel of Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, spending a day with the leisure boat moving into the theatre of war to rescue the stranded; and finally enter the cockpit of a spitfire with Tom Hardy’s Farrier, for an hour in the mid-air battleground defending ships attempting to transport the 400,000 British soldiers back home. Editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight Trilogy) slices together the intersections of the timelines and modulates their acceleration so that you’re occasionally seeing intentionally converging events a stutter step off beat.
“Dunkirk” is a film that feels like it’s firstly about survival instincts. Nolan forces the audience and the chorus of characters to endure the resounding and deafening trauma of staring into the swift abyss of death. That frequency of sound from a dive-bomber arc and the gut wrenching anticipation of bombs and machine gun fire streaming out of the sky and onto you will have you tense. Who the enemy are and how the soldiers have arrived in “Dunkirk” are almost as inconsequential as the individual. “The Mole” thread of the three stories is an unrelenting endurance test of will; a collective hoard of men, yearning to be home, under fire.
There are flurries of quiet dignity and glorious heroism that appear in the film. Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton keeps watch over his men with the compassion of a stern and caring teacher; providing some incredible moments for the audience to relish his emotive reactions splashed across IMAX 70mm. While it's easy pickings to take aim at Bane, and Farrier as another performance where Nolan has required Tom Hardy to cover his face, there aren’t very many actors with the talent and raw magnetism to so wholly enrapture you with their eyes as Mr Hardy. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is stunning here, the rich spectrum of colour from the soaking wet beach fronts, the warm innards of warships before torpedo blasts shake and submerge them and the sheer force of tracking aerial assault is breathtaking.
One wonders what brought Christopher Nolan to this moment in history and for this harrowing spectacle of cinema? In a post-Brexit world where Donald Trump is the President of the U.S.A, World War Two - particularly these ‘darkest hours’ of the United Kingdom - are spaces that filmmakers are turning toward for answers. “Dunkirk” arrives in cinemas sandwiched between the Jonathan Teplitzky directed revisionist history of “Churchill” and Joe Wright and Gary Oldman’s glorification of English mettle in “The Darkest Hour (the diplomatic machinations that complement events depicted in “Dunkirk.”) Nolan isn’t interested in rewriting history, perhaps muting the overt awareness and fixation on the motivations of the enemy. Nolan is subtle but celebratory in recognising sacrifice. While many lose their lives in this 107 minute long cinematic vice, there are plenty who live to fight another day.
Watching “Dunkirk” for the first time takes me back to my first viewing of “The Thin Red Line;” I’m ready for its mastery to emerge in repeat viewings, but right now, despite the beauty I can still feel the isolated chills of a desolate beach and a murky froth lapping at my feet. I’m not quick to laud the film’s mastery, nor to dismiss the issues that could arise from its denial of connectedness; but I’m certain that it’s worth your time on the big screen, maybe several times.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Editor: Lee Smith (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception)
Sound Editor: Richard King
Cast: Fionn Whitehead - Tommy, Damien Bonnard - French Soldier, Barry Keoghan - George, Mark Rylance - Mr. Dawson, Tom Hardy - Farrier, Kenneth Branagh - Commander Bolton, Cillian Murphy - Shivering Soldier, Harry Styles - Alex,