‘With Dunkirk, Nolan has finally hit the heights of Kubrick’ proclaimed The Guardian. Which caused me to raise an eyebrow in surprise. Because yes, Nolan can frame a shot and use music like a master as well as juggle multiple character arcs, motives and timelines like no one else working in cinema today.
But last I checked, he didn’t spend two days and 127 takes getting the perfect take of a highly complicated scene in which someone gets up, walks across a room opens a door and then closes it again. And, i’m pretty sure that Kubricks characters actually talked like human being with lives and dreams and actually did things like romance and had what we humans call ‘a sense of humor.’
Yeah, the one thing that’s holding me back from joining every other critic in worshiping at the altar of Nolan is the fact that his characters don’t talk to each other, they make speeches and spout exposition dialogue but they don’t talk.
Happily though, Nolan had gotten around this eternal sticking point by making Dunkirk an almost silent movie. To my mind he could have made it completely silent and the film wouldn’t have suffered in any way, shape or form. Would I have missed any of Tom Hardy (naturally with half his face covered) 10 lines? Nope.
But back to Dunkirk, which until the Fall of Singapore in 1942 was widely viewed as the worst defeat in British military history. And it’s a relatively simple story. 400’000 British troops are trapped on a beach at Dunkirk like fish in a barrel until they are rescued by a flotilla of more than 850 fishing boats, allegedly summoned by Sir Francis Drakes drum which according to legend it can be heard to beat at times when England is at war or significant national events take place. (Insert Brexit joke here) the boats worked for a solid week to carry troops back to safety in England.
It’s a very simple story, told from three points of view with three different timelines. The army story (starring Harry Styles who’s actually kind of awesome) is set over a week on the beaches of Dunkirk. Mark Rylance is sailing towards Dunkirk on his small boat to save as many soldiers as he can over the course of a day and Tom Hardy is flying a Spitfire with seemingly unlimited ammunition trying to provide what cover he can with an ever dwindling amount of fuel.
And if it seems like if forgotten a few nationalities, I haven’t. Their simply not in the film the Germans are never seen because the troops on the beach wouldn’t have seen them and well, Le Monde critic Jacques Mandelbaum has accused the director of being “witheringly impolite” and “indifferent” toward the role the French played in the evacuation of Allied troops, writing: “No one can deny a director’s right to focus his point of view on what he sees fit, as long as it does not deny the reality of which it claims to represent.
“Where in the film are the 120,000 French soldiers who were also evacuated from Dunkirk? Where are the 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against a superior enemy in weaponry and numbers?”
Finally, he asks “where is Dunkirk itself?”, Nolan having chosen to set the film almost entirely on the beaches and ocean.
But even leaving that aside, this is a seriously tense film with the soundtrack seemingly consisting of a clock endlessly ticking away, ratcheting up the tension as the ever un-seen Germans strike, and strike and strike again.
But this is a tense masterpiece telling a story that hasn’t been on the big screen since 1958 and whilst I would say this is a good telling of the tale, I was more affecting by the single 5 minute tracking shot in Downton Abbey style Rom-com Atonement than I was by this 106 minute 150 million dollar film. That show showed officers shooting horses, and destroying jeeps troops trying to scrape some enjoyment out of a hopeless situation, people getting drunk and a few preparing for the hopeless last siege. None of which was in Dunkirk.
It’s too clean, held back by it’s 12a rating when a 15 would have allowed for a greater examination of the human cost at Dunkirk. This film is three short stories dancing together which is fine, it works and has some tense moments. And I get why the characters are pretty interchangeable and mostly nameless and it does work on so many levels but it’s just missing that certain something.
I would have scrapped the air force storyline- it’s pretty pointless anyway and kept the focus on the land and sea, made the film a 15 and really shown what it was like at Dunkirk. Instead, this feels somewhat sanitized.
This is not a bad film, Nolan doesn’t make bad films. Disappointing ones every now and then *coughTheDarkKnightRisescugh* but never bad. And this is a good film that captures a lot of the tension and desperation of 400’000 men who are less than 30 miles from safety but may as well be a million.
With stirring performances, Nolan’s eternal dedication to practical effects and some amazing performances Dunkirk is the best war film I’ve seen since Fury.
But Kubrick levels of good?
My Score- See It