REVIEW – “Dunkirk” Goes One Step Deeper into the Mind of a Mad Genius Director
by Joe Hammerschmidt
I refuse to compare Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) to any other director of his stature. Some may say he’s Hitchcockian in allowing his actors to play, Kubrickian with building mind-expanding universes capable of causing many a jaw to drop. Still, in taking a legendary moment in the timeline of WWII to the big-budget motion picture realm with Dunkirk, his filmmaking flair will be forever immune to genre restriction, a style that’s all his own remaining intact throughout what may be the summer’s most important, and most consequential film.
For anyone unaware, the “Battle of Dunkirk” was a risky week-long effort to evacuate British and Allied soldiers from France at a point when the war was turning ugly. Exploring the heavy conflict from three separate narrative, linked together through strong editing choices; land, sea and air; Nolan effectively creates a three-ring circus by which the dramatis personae, look out for their own while keeping German enemy fleets at bay. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and hanger-on George (Barry Keoghan) roam the English Channel, unaffiliated yet determined to rescue any military personnel either capsized or shot down in the skies. Their collective spirit is expectedly challenged when an unnamed strandee struggling with PTSD (Cillian Murphy) shows his cowardess in simply not perishing on the way home.
Back on the land, rookies in combat, and close friends, Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) experience even their best judgement under scrutiny when the latter faces allegations of possible German spy ties by a fellow private, the conflicted Alex (Harry Styles). The centerpiece in this middle third has to be Kenneth Branagh as the stalwart Commander Bolton; his performance shows the greatest sense of calm and steady that the best of his army rank are required to present at all times. Meanwhile, a dogfight with all the grace and dignity of the finest ballet pairing is waged between any opposing force that crosses with the powerful teamwork of Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). This dance often makes for that gentle type of neutral/balanced scenery in between the other two, with Nolan and his longtime editor Lee Smith, cutting and stitching each moment, even each frame together in a fluid-like pattern.
Speaking of scenery, common knowledge at this point that Nolan adores IMAX. He and DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) took every opportunity to push the envelope for a mainstream film with the most IMAX footage shot for its film type; whatever wasn’t shot using IMAX cameras, it was by way of 65mm film stock. Unfortunately, the screening I attended did not allow for the luxury of either an IMAX or a 70MM exhibition, or no longer likely here in Seattle an IMAX 70MM showing; I was still left with the basic digital exhibition, with a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, which is still acceptable. The important informaton is still laid across, in both foreground and background, but many shots felt cramped, like you knew you needed the taller screen to really embrace the real openness Nolan wanted to introduce.
Like the three parallel narratives, a balanced circus is complete with the filmmakers by way of its cast. Aside from Branagh, who is essentially the true MVP of our characters, each performer maintains a reserved dignity without needing to interfere with anyone else, just interact as naturally as possible under the circumstances. Rylance, still proving his staying power as a character actor never ceases to impress me, how he just immerses himself into a character until the disconnect has melted away. Tom Hardy was likely underused, at least verbally, yet otherwise a grounded individual, most comfortable in his surroundings. With the faces I had a harder time recognizing, Whitehead’s youngster army private shows confidence and tempest fury when provoked. Even when his character doesn’t feel like an adequate soldier, he as an actor was the bravest, with Nolan as a brilliant mentor. As for Styles, the former pretty boy of One Direction, he was adequate as that bossy type of army guy just wanting to maintain order, but I personally wasn’t impressed by his screen presence. Nolan’s intent to cast Styles, not aware of his musical background, was likely in fair measure, yet it may be my one downgrade.
As proven in previous standalones Inception and Interstellar, Nolan knows right away to hook a line at the first sign of an elevating heart rate and keep an average audience gripped to their seats until the last minute. What sets this film apart from his past works is there’s a higher value of humanity’s resilliency, as evidenced in past history, something Interstellar accomplished by showing his version of the future, all only contributing further to that pivotal emotional response. I may still be biased in saying Inception is still his best film, but I’m bound to build a soft spot for Dunkirk over time, if only to chart Nolan’s continuing evolution as an “epic auteur.” This is an epic film, proud of the story it’s telling, with an honored team behind it, dedicated to ensuring the legacy of those who had fought on that beach is kept intact. I will agree with Nolan that it should be experienced as he envisioned, on 70mm. All the available options have some benefit, but do make the effort of seeing this film twice, once in the physical format for the warmth and feel, then again in IMAX just for the jaw-dropping visual. (A)
“Dunkirk” is currently playing at most area theatres; special 70MM exhibitions at AMC Pacific Place, Cinerama; rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language; 106 minutes