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Dunkirk – a relentless, unflinching masterpiece

August 23rd, 2017  |  Published in New Reels

With Dunkirk, writer / director and cinema genius Christopher Nolan delivers us one of the films of the year.

He’s done it again. Christopher Nolan, one of my favourite visual artists in film, brings us a quite extraordinary, visceral, cinematic experience with his latest film Dunkirk. An epic recreation of the events in 1940 when the British army of 400,000 soldiers were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, it’s a relentless, unflinching masterpiece of a movie and one the best films you’ll see this year.

There’s the history you know. With the German troops advancing ever closer to the sea to crush the British army in one, final stroke and with England and survival almost visible across the narrow strait of the Channel, the rescue of almost the entire army is one of the most incredible stories from any war but Nolan delivers a coup de grace in his telling of it. He uses three different timelines of a week, a day and an hour to show us what happened on land, air and sea and the interweaving of these strands, at first disorientating us and then bringing the narratives into focus, makes for a quite thrilling and nail-biting 1 hour and 46 minutes.

You have young newcomer Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a soldier wanting get off the beach and escape the horrors he’s seen so far by any means possible; you have Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as Spitfire pilots Farrier and Collins respectively, patrolling the Channel and trying to shoot down any enemy aircraft before they drop more bombs on the legions of soldiers waiting patiently on the sands; and you have Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson and Tom Glynn-Carney as his son Peter, civilians in their small pleasure cruiser requisitioned by the navy to sail across the sea and collect as many troops as they can.

With minimal dialogue and jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals, Nolan takes us on a searingly brutal journey into the hell of war that some critics have likened to Kubrick. The film certainly has the kind of elegant simplicity in shot and point of view that Kubrick employed so masterfully in movies like 2001: a space odyssey and particularly relevant here, his treatise on the Vietnam conflict, Full Metal Jacket.

With Dunkirk though, Nolan marries those Kubrick-esque painterly visuals with a quite brilliant score from his regular collaborator composer Hans Zimmer that pulls us in to his telling of the rescue with a kind of vice-like grip from the get-go. It’s the underscore he uses of a ticking clock (brilliantly showcased in the film’s trailer and my post Rescue is coming to Dunkirk) because the tension this provides to the unfolding scenes is almost unbearable. That simple, repetitive sound is so effective as we watch time running out for these men, it’s virtuoso stuff!

Nolan’s other genius trait as a film-maker is his ability to cast exactly the right actors and here he delivers one of the most dynamic companies so far. And whilst you could say you have a bona-fide movie star like Tom Hardy in one of the ensemble roles, I feel Nolan has always enabled the actors he’s cast to just be actors and not movie stars. Even Leonardo DiCaprio his lead in the magnificent Inception, or Matthew McConaughey his hero in the awe-inspiring¬†Interstellar, you could argue turned in their least movie star like performances with Nolan in the director’s chair.

In Dunkirk, alongside Hardy, he’s gathered a truly breathtaking collection of a British actors. From the aforementioned Mark Rylance to the estimable Kenneth Branagh playing Commander Bolton, one of top brass on the beach – wow the reaction shot he does at one key point in the movie is one of the finest pieces of acting you’ll witness this year! – there’s never a performance out of place. You have another of Nolan’s regular collaborators Cillian Murphy and the ever brilliant James D’Arcy, alongside new talent like Barry Keoghan (making a splash in the upcoming The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Aneurin Barnard (like Jack Lowden one of the standouts of last year’s BBC adaptation of War and Peace). He even finds space for Harry Styles, giving his pop career a back seat and turning in a very watchable supporting performance.

It’s all just top flight brilliance from a film-maker who not only creates incredible, unforgettable movies but also pushes the boundaries of cinema with his use of shooting on film and working in IMAX. I didn’t get to one of the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk but I must seek one out, as like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Kubrick’s 2001, this is a movie whose subject matter and impeccable execution really demands the biggest stage possible. Go see it.

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