Film review: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

When Christopher Nolan’s latest project was announced to be a big-screen interpretation of the famous evacuation of the Allied troops from Dunkirk beach in May 1940 during World War II, it seemed like an unusual choice. His recent output has concentrated on science fiction and fantasy; between directing the Dark Knight trilogy and his subsequent involvement with the Man of Steel films, he also found time to craft two epic science fiction films in the form of Inception and Interstellar.

A war epic felt like a shift into reality. Whilst nobody could doubt his credentials, such a film would certainly rely more on realistic-looking non-CGI special effects. It’s also true that getting these effects wrong would have ruined the authenticity of his art.

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In the run up to the release, the controversies and concerns trickled over the media, though they were far outweighed by the plaudits from those lucky enough to see the film in previews.

One of the biggest concerns was the casting of pop singer Harry Styles in one of the lead roles. I can confidently say that any worries about his ability to act are completely unfounded. He does an excellent job in his debut role.

The entire cast are excellent. The most well-known amongst them – Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy – need no praise to confirm their ability. It is the newcomers that really shine, amongst them Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. The latter is a real coup for Nolan, having only acted on stage previously and even then in small quantities. He clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

Visually, the film is stunning. Everything feels real, rom the harshness of the conditions to the shock of the relentless attacks, and contributes to the most stressful and involved journey I’ve been on during a film since The Revenant. It is an ordeal from start to finish, with the stress reflecting in a small way exactly what the soldiers were going through at the time.

Nolan has made a bold but effective choice in the non-linear storytelling method utilised. It is told in three intertwining parts that slowly converge into one storyline. In ‘The Mole’, the soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk beach (Styles, Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) have a gruelling week-long escape story as Branagh’s Commandor Bolton repeatedly tries to execute an escape route for his men. In ‘The Sea’, Rylance’s Mr Dawson takes his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) across the English Channel on a leisure boat to rescue evacuees, picking up an unnamed British soldier (Murphy) along the way, in a story that spans one day. In ‘The Air’, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot Farrier’s story takes one hour to complete as he and Pilot Officer Collins (Jack Lowden) take out enemy planes in their Spitfires. As these play out, we often see visual reminders from the other storylines that serve to anchor each one alongside the others. The stories feel inextricably linked from the start, but it’s a joy to see them play out so perfectly together.

Hans Zimmer’s score is effective in unsettling the viewer throughout. It was explained recently in a fascinating article on Business Insider. “There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepherd Tone'”, Nolan informed them. “It’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the Dunkirk script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

This effect is never more evident than during the final climactic moments as the score track ‘The Oil’ plays out. It’s simply breathtaking.

Christopher Nolan has made a career out of crafting cinematic experiences that feel part of one person’s vision. Like other contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Nicolas Winding Refn, they are experts in their field partly because viewers can watch their films and within seconds recognise their work. They are auteurs. That Nolan seems to be achieving this in such a wide gamut of genres is all the more remarkable.

Dunkirk is a film you have to see right now. It is the film you have to see right now.

Film review – The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Sofia Coppola’s choice to take on ‘The Beguiled’, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’, could be considered a bold move. The novel served as the source material for Don Siegel’s 1971 film, also titled ‘The Beguiled’, with Clint Eastwood taking the lead role. Its popularity is evidenced by its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating. A classic story about a soldier starring an all-time great film actor.

A simple remake would be drab, especially by Sofia Coppola. To reposition the whole story from the perspective of the women involved is a brilliant move and a gamble that pays dividends. The result is a swirling story of suspicion, falsities and lust that puts the central trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning at the forefront of the repositioned and wholly captivating story, reducing the central soldier figure to something akin to a supporting role.

The faded dresses the girls wear suggest a ghostly edge to their lives

The film is set in 1964 Virginia, USA, a prominent part of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. A young girl named Amy (Oona Lawrence) from a local Christian all-girls school is out picking mushrooms and stumbles across an injured solider. The man, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a soldier fighting for the Union Army of the north who finds himself critically injured and behind enemy lines. She decides to help him by taking him back to the school grounds. The head of the school, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), treats his wounds and nurses him back to recovery, whilst teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst) and older student Alicia (Fanning) become immediately interested in this mysterious man who has unexpectedly entered their lives. This is the perfect invitation for McBurney, with little to lose, to begin a charm offensive and attempt to stay at the school and avoid returning to the war.

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A captivating scene between Farrell and Dunst

 

McBurney may have been reduced to a supporting role, but Colin Farrell makes the most of his screen time to make sure the frenzy of interest is well justified. As in the novel, the character is a man of Irish heritage and Farrell plays on the stereotypes of a cheeky and charming Irishman to great effect. His character needs to stay in the school for as long as possible and he does his best to ensure everyone there doesn’t want him to leave. For Amy he offers a best friend and father figure, for Alicia he offers lust, for Edwina he offers the chance to escape and for Martha he offers intelligent conversation and companionship. This plotting is ultimately his downfall, and when it is abruptly halted Farrell is equally adept at exploding with anger – the juxtaposition against his charm making his performance all the more shocking.

 

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Dunst and Farrell

Coppola has crafted a film that lives in a completely different time to that of her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring. It was a move she actively sought to make, that film inhabiting an entirely more ugly modern world of theft, celebrity and social media that marked a departure from the norm for the director. It was a very good film, but was less well received than the likes of Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides; films that have helped define her as one of the most distinctive and identifiable directors in modern cinema. If The Bling Ring failed to speak the language we were used to, Coppola makes sure her voice is deafening in The Beguiled.

It is Dunst that eventually becomes the standout performer in a strong ensemble cast. She has been through a lot on film with Sofia Coppola, from a 15-year-old lustfully oppressed girl in The Virgin Suicides, to a precocious queen in the form of the titular Marie Antionette. In The Beguiled, Edwina is a character that could feasibly be lost alongside strong showings from Fanning and Kidman in roles of women who more clearly know what they want. Edwina is far more nuanced, at a juncture in her life where she feels lost. She is a woman who feels she is losing time and wasting her best years in a place far removed from a life. When Farell asks her what her one truest wish is, she simply responds that she wants to go as far away as she can from her current life. In the end, it was this character that I felt most sorry for, far more so that McBurney or any of the other girls.

For anyone wondering whether or not Coppola had lost her knack after an extremely strong start, a steady middle and a potential blunder in the form of A Very Murray Christmas, you will be pleased to know that The Beguiled is 100% a return to form. It may not go down in history as a great – as is the case with Lost in Translation – but it’s a fine film indeed.

Note: For further reading on Sofia Coppola’s response to controversies surrounding the omission of a slave girl from the original novel, read this article. I don’t see it as relevant to the discussion on the film so haven’t mentioned it in the main body.

Film review – The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2016)

Watching The Revenant was an ordeal. Realistically gritty, putting the viewed in the centre of the action at all times and not afraid to show a bit of gore, that I felt so uncomfortable was inevitably a deliberate choice and will be one of the reasons it inevitably wins big at the awards ceremonies this year.

The story is set in 1823 in Louisiana Purchase, which the modern world now knows as North and South Dakota. It opens with a good old-fashioned Western movie standoff: the hunters are in the woods stockpiling pelts when they are ambushed by a group of Arikara Native Americans. The scene is one of the grittiest and most brutal opening battle sequences since Saving Private Ryan. People from both sides are blown up, arrows pierce any and every body part and nothing is watered down or censored.

The hunters are led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), whilst the team includes hostile John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the experienced Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hostility is felt between Fitzgerald and Glass; the former has been partially scalped by Native Americans and the latter has a son, Hawk, from his relationship with a native.

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Come on guys. He’s done enough for the award this year.

The most famous scene from the film, in which Glass is brutally attacked by a female bear as he tried to hunt her cubs, is almost betrayed by a lack of convincing CGI. Fortunately if you believe in it enough, DiCaprio saves the day with a wholly convincing portrayal of a man desperately fighting for his life. It’s really difficult to watch but strangely mesmerizing, every grimace making you want to turn away and look closer in equal parts.

Tom Hardy is completely unlikeable as John Fitzgerald, just as he should be. There is literally nothing good about his character and it’s another huge achievement in Hardy’s young career.

As the final shot plays out, DiCaprio looks straight down the barrel of the lens and into our eyes. In the film, Glass is showing a whole range of spoilery emotions. In the real world, it felt like DiCaprio was saying to us “I’ve been attacked by a bear, had valleys dug into my back, been left for dead, thrown off a cliff, almost drowned, shot at, climbed inside a dead horse, eaten raw meat, learned the native Arikara language and almost frozen to death… so can I have an Oscar this year please?” I don’t think anyone who sees this could deny him of it. Not this time around.

The Revenant is on general release now.

 

Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

Billy Wilder made a habit of directing films that are arguably the quintessential examples of their genre. In 1944’s Double Indemnity he defined the film noir genre. Then in 1950 Sunset Boulevard hit the big screen, perhaps the best film to ever tackle Hollywood itself. With Stalag 17, a film released in 1953, he directed what many people consider to be the greatest Prisoner of War (POW) film ever released. Of course, fans of The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape may argue the toss, but Stalag 17 is up there with the best of them.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

One of the most memorable scenes of the film, expertly framed.

Set in 1944, the film focuses on the titular Luftwaffe POW camp where 640 American captured sergeants reside alongside Polish, Czech and Russian captives. It is narrated by Clarence “Cookie” Cook (Gil Stratton), reminiscing on his time in the camp. The opening sequence shows two men trying to escape from the camp, whilst the remaining men in their block argue with Sefton (William Holden) about their potential success at escaping as he takes their bets. As the only person sure of their failure, Sefton wins a large supply of cigarettes from his comrades. As the men come around to the thought that their failure may have been caused by a tip off to one of the Nazi officers, suspicion falls on the ever-cynical Sefton, who appears to be profiting nicely from various trades and deals far more than anyone else held captive. Unwilling to protest his innocence, Sefton resolves to find the real informer and expose him before another there are any more casualties.

What strikes most prominently about this film is its inclination towards comedy. It is certainly rooted in the seriousness of being held as a POW in Nazi Germany, but the comradeship and light-heartedness with which the Americans deal with their situation sets it apart from other films in this genre. It doesn’t just stop at the relationship between those of the same nationality. Indeed, it takes on quite a comical depiction of the relationship between the guards and the captives, illustrating a softer side to the Nazi officers that is seldom depicted elsewhere.

As the film progresses, however, the comical aspects fade somewhat to allow the seriousness of the situation to take centre stage. This contrast is less harsh than, say, Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997), but it works perfectly. The light-heartedness encourages the viewer to warm to all the characters quicker than would have otherwise been possible and by the time the final act plays out the tension is at its peak.

William Holden rightly won an Oscar for his performance as Sefton, spoiling the party that year for the likes of Marlon Brando (Julius Caeser) and Richard Burton (The Robe). The popularity of the film can be put down to two factors at the time. Firstly, the film was withheld from release until 1953 because Paramount Pictures didn’t believe anyone would be interested in a POW film; only when the release of prisoners following the end of the Korean War did it have a widespread political context (both the US release and the end of the Korean War occurred in July 1953). Secondly, the backdrop of the film industry itself was focused on the Hollywood Blacklist, a list of those industry professionals considered to be supportive of communism. This was at its height in 1953, but no studios would dare release a film to directly tackle these issues. The storyline of a lone man being singled-out by his peers based on false circumstantial evidence will no doubt have gained extra resonance against this ongoing issue.

Stalag 17 deserves to be seen, for its excellent performances, magnificent direction and historical relevance. With it being a Masters of Cinema release, there has never been a better time to check it out.

Stalag 17 is available to purchase now from Masters of Cinema on Blu-Ray.

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)

Lifeboat, the first of Hitchcock’s limited-setting pictures, follows the story of British and US civilians, merchant marines and service members in the aftermath of a battle that sees the sinking of their boat and a German U-Boat. When a German man Willi (Walter Slezak) is also rescued, the tension on the boat increases and coping with the harsh environment and the claustrophobic arrangement takes its toll. Pretty soon suspicion and accusations take the place of compassion and reasoning, with a plot that keeps the audience guessing way beyond the final scene.

Released towards the end of World War II, the film was shrouded in controversy due to the seemingly fair portrayal of a German man who turns out to be a Nazi soldier. This was enough to make the studio give it only a limited release – a surprise given that Rebecca, Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt had all been box office successes in the immediately preceding years. Furthermore, John Steinbeck (who wrote the original novel) distanced himself from the adaptation, unhappy with the way Hitchcock had dealt with his work.



It is perhaps only years later that we can appreciate this film for what it is – a good film heavily influenced by the times and heaped with elements of propaganda. In that sense it’s as much a film as it is a historical document. In a way, all cinema is the same.

Lifeboat isn’t amazing, certainly not one of Hitchcock’s finest. I had hoped that the lack of popularity was because of the controversy surrounding its release, but in truth it’s probably because it just doesn’t pack as many punches as the likes of Vertigo and Psycho. It’s worth watching out of interest and worth buying the Masters of Cinema release for the detailed bonus features and two additional little-seen Hitchcock shorts Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, though these are more for the avid fans, even more so than the main feature. It’s worth watching, but not as a Hitchcock starting point.

Lifeboat is available on Masters of Cinema and SteelBook Blu-ray now.

The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

Why would I watch a film like The Birth of a Nation? It clocks in at 169 minutes long, and as a silent film that is now 100 years old I’d expect the narrative structure and storytelling to be a far cry from what I’m used to today. The storylines cover a period of history that I don’t associate with, and it is the history of a country that I have experienced first-hand only through Orlando theme parks, which despite their best intentions probably aren’t a fair representation of the rest of the USA.

There is a certain detachment from it that means it lacks the stigma I’m sure it holds for Americans. Perhaps it’s the challenge of being able to say I’ve watched it, or to see for myself what all the critics have discussed many times over. Let’s not forget that it holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was the highest grossing film of all time until Gone With The Wind some 25 years later, and it is regarded as one of the most culturally significant films of all time. These facts alone should make it essential viewing for a fan of the history of cinema.

The film starts small and builds to encompass some of the biggest political changes the world has ever seen. Initially, we focus on two families: the Stonemans and the Camerons. The Stonemans are a pro-Union family from Northern US, and they set off to visit the Camerons, a South Carolina-based pro-Confederacy family. Romance and friendship fly between some of the younger members, but this is curtailed when the young men are forced to join their respective armies for the Civil War. Their stories and relationships are intertwined throughout the film, all with the backdrop of some great war battle scenes, some (at the time) shocking torture scenes, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and the entry into Reconstruction-era USA. It’s complex, it’s ambitious and on a purely story-driven level it really works. Films of this grand scale had never been attempted before and it’s not difficult to imagine the wow factor experienced by the audiences when they originally saw it.

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That said, it’s extremely difficult to cover everything necessary to put this film into context. I’m sure whole university courses have been taught on the subject. It is one that traverses cinema, film history and political history and it would take a braver man than I to tackle everything in a short review. The elements of the film that are now deemed to be racist are interesting only from a historical point of view. Indeed, it is alarming that they were ever considered to be not racist. This includes, but isn’t limited to: the romanticisation of the founding of the KKK; African Americans getting elected into parliament only to be shown drinking during parliamentary sessions once in power; the portrayal of white men as the victims for large periods of the second half of the film; the way that the mere suggestion of interracial marriage is shown as abhorrent to white people; and most offensively, the Ku Klux Klan being shown as simply upholding the good values of the land and being the savours of an honest and righteous USA.

One African American is portrayed as a sexual deviant in one scene depicting the attempted rape of a central white character, who opts for suicide in one of the most suspenseful and heartbreaking scenes of the film. It’s segments such as this that really underline both the achievements and the failings of the film, with some pioneering techniques used to create a real edge-of-the-seat experience juxtaposed by subject matter that should never have seen the light of day.

It’s an eye-opener for the political status of the USA in 1915 that this is the case. The fact is that there are quite blatantly racist depictions of African Americans, particularly in the second half, and on every level these are jarring for the modern viewer. Couple this with the length of the film and the fact it’s a silent film and you have something that is quite inaccessible for the casual viewer.

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Certainly Griffith, directing what would come to be his defining picture, felt he had to add a pre-title screen statement clarifying and justifying the existence of the film (this was added to a re-release of the film after its exceptionally successful initial run). Later, riddled with guilt about the success of the film and – more importantly – who it was finding success with, he released Intolerance in 1916, which went a long way to protect his reputation and show other sides of the argument by heavily criticising racism and prejudice. Later he released the first cinematic portrayal of interracial romance (Broken Blossom, 1918). Also included on this disc (the Masters of Cinema PAL release) is a seven minute interview that introduced the film from 1930 onwards, where he attempted to justify the release further. It must have been a tough situation to be in for Griffith, being lauded for a film that you no longer wished to be associated with.

I’m glad I watched it, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of film. For a casual viewer who wants to be entertained, I see nothing for you here.

The Birth of a Nation is out now on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, whilst Griffith’s later film Intolerance will be released on Blu-ray, also via Masters of Cinema, on 8th December 2014.