Wednesday, 19 July 2017


Roadshow Films

Not nearly as harrowing as the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Christopher Nolan's lean but unrelenting Dunkirk manages to remind us that war is indeed – as it always has been – hell.

With limited dialogue, immersive sound design, an at-times too insistent score (Hans Zimmer), and yes, impressive IMAX cinematography shot on 70mm (courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan recreates the evacuation of British soldiers from the northern French seaport of Dunkirk as viscerally as possible (though blood and actual viscera are nowhere to be seen).

Unfolding in three overlapping time lines (which you will find either bold or gimmicky), Dunkirk is told from three points of view: a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) trying to escape the precarious beach, with all manner of bad luck and German artillery befalling him; two Brit fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden), charged with keeping their German counterparts at bay; and the crew of an English fishing trawler (captained by Mark Rylance), who answer the call to sail to France to rescue their boys.

It is the former timeline which is the most gripping, as young men (yes, including Harry Styles) struggle to stay alive until rescue arrives. Like Zimmer's score – and the Channel tide – the tension builds then subsides, only to be ratcheted up once more.

Indeed, Nolan's entire film is constructed as one big ticking clock, counting down not only until the rescue but that point where all three storylines converge. It's a device that keeps you close to the edge of your seat for the film's 106-minute running time (surprisingly short for Nolan), rendering the action effective if not necessarily affecting. Perhaps that is the point. Like Australia's own Gallipoli, which has generated an ugly nationalistic mythos, the story of the events Dunkirk is essentially one of failure and retreat: a turning point in the war, yes, but far from anything resembling victory.

Dunkirk is a Dutch word which translates as 'church in the dunes', but if there is a god, he had abandoned the British on that beach. The devil, however, is in the detail, and Nolan brings all of his cinematic prowess to bear on this tale which, while not celebrating war, honours British pluck and heroism. It's an impressive tribute.

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