I’ve been going to the cinema since I could remember and at the grand old age of 28, I finally cried, watching Dunkirk, presented in IMAX.
Director Christopher Nolan has expressed Dunkirk is a suspense driven film. Who am I to disagree with arguably the best living director of our generation. However, I didn’t find it suspenseful. I found it an overwhelmingly emotional experience, that profoundly moved me.
Perhaps you have to be British to get it, thus it would be interesting to hear how an American, French and German audience react. Nonetheless, Dunkirk is a thrilling disaster movie that shows what movies can be at their best, grand and intimate simultaneously.
Unlike film suspense masters, Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, there are no bombs underneath the table, unbeknownst to our protagonists such as Hitch’s Rope (1948), there are no twists like Vertigo (1958) or curveballs like De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998) or Mission: Impossible (1996). To me, the film is about survival and Paul Greengrass’ white knuckle ride Captain Phillips (2013) immediately comes to mind.
Additionally, silence speaks louder than words in Dunkirk. There is no need for unnecessary exposition or dialogue to express the inner feelings of the characters. We see, hear and feel what they are going through, we need not dialogue to tell us. I feel this is an appropriate fit with the Battle of Dunkirk itself and in keeping with returning veterans from war, whose experiences are so profound that words cannot encapsulate what they have gone through or seen. Only Sir Winston Churchill can come close.
Technically speaking, Nolan and his editing team extend the action up until a cliffhanger, then cut to the second storyline winding up tension up until another cliffhanger, and then returning to the previous sequence. This motif is used in The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). What’s more Nolan and his team slow down time, when an event is tension driven, exaggerating the fear and desperation, whilst speeding up time when moments, in reality, would otherwise be slow. And finally, he uses the technique of Pure Cinema and Spielberg-like push-ins to encourage the audience to want to see.
In my opinion, in Nolan’s eyes everything is a legitimate character, whether it be, costume, setting, weather, sound, sound mixing or the elements. For me, the stand out performance is newcomer Fionn Whitehead. Although he has very little dialogue, he communicates his feelings and thoughts through his eyes, expressions and actions. One to watch for the future, no doubt.
Neither is the film blood and gore. It’s scary, but not in a scary film sort of way. No, the film shows through sound and image, the mortal terror of warfare, with the recurring thought, it could be me next who dies. In some ways, Nolan is more interested in what makes us human, the primordial instinct to survive and the actions we take in order to survive, sometimes at any cost, irrespective of the consequences.
Furthermore, recommendations of seeing it on the biggest screen possible, are entirely correct. The Paul Nash inspired images of the Spitfires, beaches and sea battles are more like grand murals, one could imagine them more accustomed to being hung in The Louvre, National Gallery or Smithsonian, rather than inside a multiplex theatre.
Further-still, what makes me proud is that Nolan has made a profoundly British film. His previous films have been American orientated both in style and setting such as The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012), Interstellar (2014) and Momento (2000).
In some ways, this is Nolan saying he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Thus, kudos to Warner Brothers and Syncopy for having the guts to go for something that is so out of keeping with today’s overload of superhero films.
Unlike those franchises, audiences will experience what true heroism means and perhaps be inspired to learn about the events of 1940, on the beaches of Dunkirk.