“Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight in it?” – Mr. Dawson, Dunkirk (2017)
Over my summer holidays I’ve been catching up on a lot of films I should’ve seen by now. In doing so I managed to watch the majority of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. He has a very unique style around him and it’s a style I thoroughly enjoy. Memento (2002) is absolutely one of the best films of the 2000s, so it should come as no surprise that I was thoroughly looking forward to his latest spectacle. But Dunkirk provided me with a very different Nolan, one that I’d not been anticipating on experiencing, but am glad I did in some way.
How many World War 2 related films did 2017 release that I’ll have to review? Darkest Hour (2017), this, Churchill (2017) and if you really want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, we can count Pegasus Bridge (2017) too. Still, there seemed to be an odd rekindling of interest in the World War 2 genre. One that used to get tapped into rather infrequently with films such as Downfall (2004) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Still, it’s always great when a big name director like Tarantino or Nolan takes an interest in this period because, more often than not, it leads to some marvellous results.
Dunkirk is a bit of an interesting film. It’s a subversion of traditional storytelling. Rather than using chapters to mark a different storyline or having any indication of time, the film just does what it wants with a great frequency. Sometimes we’re on a beach in the middle of the day, but other times we’re in the ocean and it’s the middle of the night. To grasp a sense of timing in this film is near impossible, so much so that it’s really not worth trying to bother doing so. Yes, it was confusing as all hell, but so long as it doesn’t detract from the performances then we’re all good to go.
Without a doubt the best performance in the film comes from either Tom Hardy or Mark Rylance. Hardy plays Farrier, a British airforce pilot who, sporadically throughout the film, flies nearby the other stories. I’ve never seen a performance have such impact with so little dialogue to go around. It’s genuinely rather surprising. Rylance is also fantastic in his role as Mr. Dawson, a civilian boat captain tasked with aiding troops fleeing the Dunkirk beach. It’s a really strong performance, Rylance has always been a reliable performer, and Dunkirk proves that very nicely. It was his work in Bridge of Spies (2015) that shot him into prominence, and he seems well suited to stay in the spotlight.
Still, the strong performances don’t stop there. Michael Caine’s very small cameo as the Radio Operator is a nice touch, showing that Nolan still has his favourites that he enjoys working with. Hardy being another favourite to feature throughout, as does Cillian Murphy. Murphy’s performance is nowhere near his best work, but that may be because he’s such a versatile actor and the role he plays here doesn’t exactly suit him. Harry Styles is also in the movie. That’s all I really want to say on that. He’s a dogshit actor and a mediocre singer. He gets a good few minutes of acting in and I was slightly impressed but it just goes downhill from there.
But that’s a problem with the film on the whole. The dialogue, what little there is of it, isn’t the most interesting and at times is very weak. For some reason Nolan has let himself down here, because it’s the writing that Nolan can always pride himself on. Maybe Nolan’s a little out of his depth? He’s used to tackling fictional portrayals of Batman, not of real world ordeals. He struggles on through and it’s nice to see him try something so new and different, but to what end? It’s not his most interesting project, it’s rather mundane when you begin to think about it a bit more. However mundane it may be though, it’s still very enjoyable. For all the boring scenes, there are a handful that inspire genuine fear and truly capture the horrors of the Dunkirk evacuation. As for historical accuracy, who fucking knows or cares?
Visually, the film is truly stunning. One of the best looking films I have seen in a very long time. Nolan’s approach to the film is very different to that of his other films, and this provides definite positives and negatives throughout. For one thing, his use of lighting and key musical setpieces seems much more noticeable and frequent than his other works. That’s not a bad thing, you can do so much in a movie with the right timing of an emotive bit of music. Nolan’s vision of Dunkirk is integral to the overall success of the movie, so it’s no surprise that his direction is absolutely superb. His unique vision translates well to the big screen and makes Dunkirk more than just another war movie.
I’m not sure how long ago it was now, but I wrote an article on how people were a bit upset with the lack of female protagonists within the film. Did it make an impact on the film? No, not particularly. I’m not saying that as a way of upsetting anyone or baiting an argument. All I mean is that, regardless of who was cast in this movie, it really didn’t matter. Whoever was cast in whichever role didn’t matter, because the focus isn’t on the individual. Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on a collection of stories that dubiously fit together. His attempts at instilling some sort of weird patriotic nationalism didn’t work, however the convincing nature of the performances from everyone involved were enjoyable enough.
Still, it really doesn’t feel like a Nolan film. I alluded to that in the first paragraph, something just feels very off about the film. Something that just doesn’t add up correctly and I’m not entirely sure why. His direction feels a tad generic, especially when compared to works such as Inception (2010). Still, the direction is solid and it leads to some very enjoyable work. Dare I say it was a bit better than Inception, mainly because Dunkirk makes a lick of fucking sense.