'Dunkirk' - Review - Chris at the Pictures

Friday, 21 July 2017

'Dunkirk' - Review

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Christopher Nolan completes his ticking clock trilogy with this unutterably gripping World War 2 thriller. As with the dilated dream-spaces of Inception and the ruthless relativity of Interstellar, time is the enemy in Dunkirk; for the 400,000 allied soldiers trapped on the beach, the fleet of civilian ships headed to the rescue and the Spitfires low on fuel. Fionn Whitehead (a soldier), Mark Rylance (a sailor) and Tom Hardy (a Spitfire pilot) take centre stage of each setting, their fight to survive tracked across a week, a day and an hour, respectively.

There’s an age-old anecdote from those who’ve worked with George Lucas that his repeated command during the re-shooting of a scene is “faster, more intense”. Capturing that perfect rush as an object hurtles past the camera, that jolt in the throat when a detonation rocks the screen and the soaring of the soul as a duel to the death reaches climax is a jewel often mined but rarely refined in current action fare. Dunkirk, however, shines effervescent. We are dropped, thrown and shoved into each situation in the blink of an eye, and every time the brief expulsion of breath that comes with the release of tension is cut off by the next gasp. Visceral doesn’t begin to cover it.

Explosions are something of a rarity in Nolan’s back catalogue, but always a striking incident. Think of Gotham hospital in The Dark Knight, the crippling of the Endurance in Interstellar: jaw-dropping moments that project pure awe and horror because they’re such an anomaly. With hell raining down from all sides in all three separate narratives here, a slowly encroaching numbness might well be expected. Expected, yes. Delivered, no. The fifteenth divebombing by a Messerschmitt is as terrifying as the first.

One thinks of virtual reality as a medium now diminishing in size (from streamlined headsets to phone screens), but not for Nolan. An experience that places you on the ground, in the air and in the water feels instantly at home on the big screen, and unimaginable anywhere else. It’s as if – in his quest to preserve the sanctity of theatrical presentation – Nolan has deliberately ensured that Dunkirk can only work on a canvas larger than your house.

The director’s paintbrush is Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose cinematography (particularly the aerial work) is truly spellbinding. As the Dutch-Swedish maverick switches effortlessly from handheld staggering to cockpit-cam delirium, you find yourself subconsciously panting as Whitehead and Harry Styles (who proves his acting mettle, and then some) scramble across the deck of a sinking ship, or tipping your head as Hardy’s plane turns into a deft spin.

Which, if you’ll forgive me, brings matters to a personal note: towards the end of the film comes a pure, unfiltered ode to the Spitfire. More specifically, an homage to a craft that served at Dunkirk and flew from Duxford airfield, where my grandfather served as a flight rigger. To see such an icon of our family history projected onto an IMAX screen, freed from behind the ropes and bollards of a museum, is a moment I will never forget. In a film composed purely of indelible images, that’s no mean feat.

Hoytema’s visuals and Zimmer’s nail-biter of a score speak louder than any screenplay, and Nolan knows this, appropriately offering the slimmest script of his oeuvre. His cast aren’t performers, they’re people, free of grandstanding or clunky exposition. Kenneth Branagh’s blindsided Commander Bolton has the most coherent dialogue to deliver, laced with just enough stiff-upper-lip authenticity to remind us of Dunkirk as a uniquely British story.

I’m not normally one for patriotism, but that we can claim a World War 2 disaster film as the most terrifyingly thrilling spectacle in years is a source of enormous pride, especially given the scarcity of cinema designed to make you gasp, cry and pray all at the same time. Like Nolan's best work, his new masterpiece ends on a sense of oncoming awe, the expectation of greatness still to come. Who are we to doubt him now?