Christopher Nolan is clearly one of this generation’s outstanding film makers. From Memento through to his Dark Knight trilogy, to Inception and Interstellar, he does something interesting every time. Not only are his films glorious to watch, shot with large-format film including IMAX for much of his latest, but his films are very successful at the box office. He’s one of the few directors working who can make a $100m+ film not based on a franchise.
Which brings us to Dunkirk – his telling of the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 troops from the beach, where they were pinned down by advancing German soldiers during WWII. This isn’t the first film telling the story of the rescue of so many soldiers against the odds. The 1958 Ealing Studios film was one of their most of expensive, and also one of their last, produced by the famed Michael Balcon. And perhaps the most memorable sequence of Joe Wright’s Atonement, features the lines of troops on a massive scale on Dunkirk beach.
Time is a key component of many of Nolan’s films, from the reversed timelines of Memento to the physics of space and time in Interstellar. In Dunkirk he plays with time once more. Captions reveal that we’re going to see three key stories over a week, a day and an hour.
We follow the troops on the beach across a week, as they are marshalled, amongst others, by Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander onto the limited supply of vessels able to dock at “The Mole” a wooden pier that allows access to vessels that couldn’t otherwise come ashore.
Mark Rylance and his young crew, are leading a pleasure yacht across the Channel from Dorset, across a single day.
Finally there is Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot who’s mission, limited by the amount of fuel he can carry, is limited to just an hour.
These three timelines are played out simultaneously, with the strands linking together at key points.
There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, but there is a lot of music, much of which is layered within sound. Nolan has worked once again with Hans Zimmer, and even more than in his last two outings with Inception and Interstellar, the music is a vital part of the whole. This is music that is front and centre. And individual music cues run between the different timelines, making the film feel as a single piece. The limited dialogue means that music becomes ever more important. As Zimmer did with Inception, with its deconstruction of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, so he works skillfully with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
This is a 12A film, and that’s actually quite important. Saving Private Ryan, for example, is classified as a 15. That films heart-stopping opening changed war films forever, meaning that other films that came in its wake felt the need to mimic its blood soaked verisimilitude. The short shutter speed (actually a 45 degree or 90 degree shutter angle) led to a staccato experience for the viewer. The same effect has since been repeatedly used in large scale action sequences.
But I could never help feeling that Saving Private Ryan was two very different films glued together. That opening, and then a more by-the-numbers war film with a dubious over-arching premise. Band of Brothers, the HBO series that came directly in its wake, seemed to have a more cohesive narrative structure.
Dunkirk has a more even feel to the film as a whole. That’s not to say that you don’t truly believe that anyone could die at any moment. From the opening scene in which Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his fellow troops pluck a leaflet from the sky warning them that they are surrounded, the action rarely lets up.
The stoicism of Rylance as he heads into the unknown, with just burning ships on the horizon guiding him towards Dunkirk, and the bravery of the Spitfire pilots as they battle to protect ships in the Channel laden with men and being targeted by German bombers.
There have been complaints that the film doesn’t portray everything completely accurately. French troops are largely ignored despite the fact that many of them were holding up the Germany army while the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated. Then there’s the complaint that there are no faces of colour when there were significant numbers of Asian and East African troops serving. In fact, the film does include some black faces, but admittedly not very many. In the end, I would say that the film concentrates on a small handful of soldiers, and despite the scale of the film in places – thousands of extras lined up on the beach – we are mostly dealing with individual characters.
I was fortunate to be able to see Dunkirk in its IMAX film presentation at the BFI Waterloo. The majority of the film, including nearly all the action sequences, were shot on these enormous cameras. Only the very closest scenes – often below deck on ships – was shot on the “smaller” 70mm cameras. What this means is that the film’s aspect ratio is actually close to square for a lot of the film but on such a large scale that it just fills nearly all your peripheral vision. Then it’s “cropped” to a 70mm aspect ratio for some sequences. But strangely, you really don’t notice this except when you’re looking for it. (I recall seeing the final Dark Knight film in this manner, and there the jumps between formats were somehow much more noticeable). The key thing is that all the big set pieces are simply stunning to look at. The aerial combat scenes are some of the most fantastic I’ve seen. Exactly where real planes were employed and where CGI might have been used is impossible to tell. The credits reveal that they definitely did use real planes, and it does feel as though you’re in there with Tom Hardy as he tries to save the lives of troops, as all the while a lack of fuel means that he doesn’t have enough to return to England.
Similarly, when you see ships being attacked and sometimes sinking, they feel very real. I know that real ships were used on the production – lots of them. But we’ve moved to a point where CGI can make real things look very real indeed.
While the nature of Dunkirk means that we know what will happen in broad terms, that doesn’t apply for individual characters, and we are left on the edge of our seats throughout.
Overall a film that left me wanting to go back in and see it again, because seeing it on the big screen is essential – ideally from a film print. Essential.