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, from 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.

Screen 6… With Edith Bowman

If you’re in the UK and want something film-related that’s massively interesting to listen to in the office or on your travels – and free – then head over to the 6 Music website and download the Screen 6 podcasts.

Presented by Edith Bowman, each episode consists of an interview with some massive A-Listers from the world of film. This includes Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg, the Coen brothers, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. They discuss in great detail the choices behind their greatest scoring and soundtracking achievements, inspirations and influences. It’s well worth a listen. The only limitation is that the songs are cut short in podcast format, though if you’re lucky you can get them on the iPlayer and get the whole show.

Every episode can be found here.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Christopher Nolan’s space-exploration epic has transcended being merely a film and has become a kind of international event. With its sprawling starscapes, well-thought-out science, huge cast and mind-blowing visuals, this was always bound to get people talking. It’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy it very much at all.

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Before I start, I should say that I watched it an IMAX cinema. I’ve heard stories about different experiences depending on which cinema you’ve seen it at, but mine certainly wasn’t a pleasurable one. The film starts with a blasting soundtrack, so ear-piercing it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. The discomfort never truly goes away throughout the film, but it is most pronounced in these scenes, and sort of lulls back and forth in the background for the rest of the film, making the spoken words more or less audible depending on how Zimmer and Nolan wanted to play it. To add to this, I had the joy of watching it in a busy screening so I was also fighting against the 100s of people who were eating rustly popcorn, chocolates and sweets, slurping drinks as big as their heads, or tucking into crunchy, pungent and hideously over-priced nachos [1].

As a visual experience, the film has many merits and if there is one area it should sweep up come awards season, it should be on the special effects. The distant planets are fully realised, tangible places and when we step off into a vast rocky, icy plane we feel completely like we on a place not of this planet but totally real. That probably benefited from being seen at an IMAX, and I was doubly pleased that it didn’t have to tart itself up with 3D visuals that weren’t required.

I didn’t think any of the lead actors were at the top of their game. Following last year’s Oscar winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club and a memorable appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McGonaughey was obviously on a high going into this. Bar a highly emotional scene where he starts to receive video messages from his eldest child (played, eventually, by Casey Affleck), the rest of his performance was merely adequate. Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine both did a great job playing the same role they usually play in Christopher Nolan films. It’s just a shame none of these performances blew me away.

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As the film has many opportunities to have the plot ruined by people, mostly people said to me “It’s good, but the last 40 minutes were completely pointless.” That annoyed me because I was expecting a slump at this point. As much as I resisted, they were wholly right. Up to this point we had a solid, thoughtful action film and in the last chapter it just descended into madness, tripping itself or the audience (or both) up with complicated 5D gravitational bleeding theory and scientific speculation. At one point I actually laughed out loud. I’m convinced the most cinema goers would have been completely lost by the end of the film. Maybe that was the idea. Following Nolan’s previous films, where we were challenged and surprised by the twists at the end (The Prestige is still one of my favourite films of all time, precisely because it has a great twist or three at the end), it was disappointing that the big reveal was so well thought out but yet so poorly communicated. Perhaps they needed to have a 30 minute lecture before the film introducing us all to the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Maybe an idea for the Blu-Ray release [2].

I’m not going to sit here and recommend you don’t see this film. It’s just an opinion, and seemingly one that goes completely against the grain of everyone I’ve spoken to. I just didn’t think it was as good as the hype, nor as good as Nolan’s previous efforts. All-in-all, a bit of a let down.

Interstellar is out now at cinemas worldwide.

[1] = Why-oh-why would you choose to do spend so much on food at a cinema. A cinema of all places? It’s so expensive and you annoy everyone else at the same time. Have we, as a nation, become so obese that we can’t make it through a three hours screening without doubling our calorie intake for the day? I think it’s a serious issue and indicative of where society has taken itself that we must consume unhealthy food every couple of hours. No wonder there’s an obesity problem. It reminds me of the guy in China who buys every single ticket to a screening at his local cinema for once a week, which is increasingly seeming like a good idea (though I don’t think I could justify the £2k spend each time to be honest).

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[2] There’s a great explanation of the science behind the film over at Screen Rant. It’s full of spoilers but if you’ve already seen the film and want a bit of a nudge on what was happening, that’s a great place to start.