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Dunkirk - a review of Chris Nolan's latest film


First off, it's great to be able to write a review and not be afraid of spoilers. Unless you have never opened a history book in your life, most will know how the story ends. The tag-line for Dunkirk is "the event that shaped our world". I'd like to think of it as "the film that changed cinema - again!" Too bold a claim? Read on.

My first introduction to Christopher Nolan's work was 2000's Memento which also introduced Guy Pearce to the big screen as he leapt from Ramsey Street in Neighbours (playing Mike Young for four years) to Hollywood. Memento is a film that had an instant impact on me. At the time I was not sure what I had just seen and it is a film I return to at least once a year and find something fresh in it.

The Noughties say Nolan immersed in the DC world with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. 2010 saw Nolan revisiting his fascination with time and our perception of time in Inception. It played with our perceptions of reality, time, asking what is it to dream, what is it to be awake and are we a dream within a dream, borrowing an idea from Edgar Allen Poe.

Fast forward to 2017 and we arrive at Dunkirk. Before I discuss the plot or the performance, let's talk technical. Nolan filmed Dunkirk in IMAX with an aspect ratio of 1:1 and that is how one should view this film if possible. Not all of us can access an IMAX theatre. I saw it projected in 1.666:1 in my local multiplex so I feel I lost some of the visual, visceral aspects that the director intended. Getting an IMAX camera into the cockpit of a Submarine Spitfire could not have been an easy feat! Despite the technical wizardry on display, Nolan manages to tell a series of personal stories using vignettes.

Dunkirk is a sombre film. This is no celebration of life. Nolan tells the story of the evacuation of 400,000 service men from the beaches of Dunkirk, France in WWII by pleasure craft from the south coast of the UK. We get the perspective of the Spitfire pilot, the service men on the ground, the Admiral in charge of the investigation. Yet amongst all of these personal stories there is tragedy. We see the desperation of the men trying to get home and sneaking onto ships. We see the despair of a serviceman take off his helmet and rifle and walking into the sea while his comrades sit and watch, each as helpless as the other.

It is a huge credit to Nolan that while he paints this enormous palette of images, he can focus tightly on the smallest aspect of humanity.

Nolan also revisits his favourite topic of time. Dunkirk, while being told through vignettes, splits up the story-telling into one hour, one day and one week. He then proceeds to rearrange the sequence of events into a non-linear act of story-telling. This has huge echoes of Memento and Inception and at this stage is almost a trademark of Nolan's. Personally, I think the style will divide audiences who prefer linear story-telling. However Nolan firmly believes that audiences are smart enough to figure it out on their own. They don't need reams of exposition to understand what is happening. I respect Nolan for that. To be honest I was almost half-way through the film before I noted the time-leaps he was making, back and forth. It is a style that allows him to tell the same story from multiple perspectives. I love it!

Nolan has assembled a stellar cast including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, relative new-comer Fionn Whitehead, not to mention One Direction's Harry Styles as Alex. Most characters only get first names and some get none. Cillian Murphy is "the Shivering Soldier" - it doesn't get more stripped-back than that. All performances are excellent. Character development is pretty much non-existent. It is not needed as motivation is obvious.

Let's talk about the soundtrack, provided by Hans Zimmer. He has provided the soundtrack for a good many Nolan films with Dunkirk their latest collaboration. Zimmer's syncopated style provides a stunning addition to Nolan's story-telling. There is not a note out of place. This is what soundtracks should be. Is Dunkirk the greatest film of the 21st century, probably not but Hans Zimmer's score certainly is. A masterpiece.

I was left wanting more and wanting to see it again in IMAX. My recommendation is to go see it on the biggest, loudest screen you can find. Size matters. So too does the sound system.


 

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