11 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk

(Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the strongest proponents for shooting onto film rather than digitally, but also for shooting as much as he can using IMAX 65mm cameras. We've still yet to see an entire feature film shot this way as it's expensive and the equipment is cumbersome and noisy, but the footage you get looks just incredible with a more expansive framing and a stunning clarity. It should be noted that you need to see the film projected from IMAX 70mm reels to fully appreciate this. Unfortunately most modern IMAX's only project digitally onto screens that pale in comparison to the true, traditional behemoth's (the so-called Liemax's – ie where it looks like a regular cinema auditorium has been converted to put in a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen, rather than building a new structure to house a screen that's at least three to four stories high!). Since The Dark Knight Nolan has been flirting with shooting select parts of his films in this format, and the vast majority of Dunkirk (over 70%, the most yet) is shot this way, so seeking out a true IMAX screen to see the film exactly as the director intended is absolutely worth it if you can  something not that easy in the UK with just three cinemas projecting it this way.

Dunkirk is relentless. It barely pauses for a breath over its 106 minute run-time, meting out an endless barrage of destruction that makes it the ideal film for the immersive and sometimes overwhelming IMAX experience. As a viewer you could do with a couple of quiet moments interspersed throughout just to catch your breathe, but this is about recreating what it was like for these men, so why should we the viewer be extended such courtesy? To that end there's an almost continual use of music and droning background noise, and the perpetual ticking that increases with the never-ending threat of attack. It's all highly effective in creating a sense of unease, amplifying the desperation of what these men were going through whilst we enjoy the comfort and warmth of our seats.

Splitting the narrative between three threads offers some variety and keeps things interesting, even when the jumping timeline jars and pulls you a little out of the story because it doesn't flow seamlessly. The journey of three men attempting to escape the beach of Dunkirk most effectively highlights the futility of war, as no matter what they do they seem doomed. The obstacles thrown in their way begins to feel like overkill, as a heavy-handed way to emphasise the difficulty of escape. The silent scenes between Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are highly effective, which gets ruined somewhat by Harry Styles' mouthy character who feels like an unnecessary cliché. Most of the dialogue in the film comes on the boat that Mark Rylance's character captains. This is the primary emotional heart of the film. Regular citizens stepping up to make a difference, sometimes with deeper reasons for doing so, as nicely articulated by Tom Glynn-Carney late in the film. The thread of story with his friend Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy's character does come across as a superfluous distraction to the bigger picture though. And then there's the air, with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the Spitfire pilots combating the threat from above in an always gripping manner.

Despite the decent acting throughout, the characters feel of secondary importance as Dunkirk comes across more as a technical tour de force. This is Nolan filming stunning aerial combat sequences over the sea, sinking a plethora of ships and corralling a cast of thousands. The instinct of the film is survival, the act of saving and how that all came to pass. It's an effective recreation of the hell and desperation that is war (without most of us ever having to know for sure) and the impact that has on a person. Nolan has stated that his desire was to create a film that takes the dynamics of a dramatic third act and sustains it for the entire duration of the picture, and it mostly works in the context of this story/subject, but it also means something is sacrificed in the cohesiveness of the storytelling and how it wears the viewer down. Thus it lacks that special something that comes across in most of his other films, but lest we forget he has previously set the bar very high. Nonetheless Dunkirk is a fascinating experiment and a superbly crafted film. If you can't see it projected via IMAX 70mm then see it on the biggest screen you can find.

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