Sunday 23 July 2017
Directed by Christopher Nolan
UK cinema release print.
It might be pertinent, perhaps, to mention at the very start of this review that I am not the biggest fan of war films. That being said, there are a few which I think work really well and I’m sure that if I could just bring myself to see a few more of them, I’d probably embrace the genre as much as I do any other. However, I’m also not the best admirer of the work of director Christopher Nolan either, although I did like the second and third films of his Batman Trilogy quite a lot.
So why did I go and see this movie then?
Well, I’ve mellowed a lot to the music of Hans Zimmer over the years (and seen him twice in two incredible concerts, one of which is reviewed here) and I really wanted to see what he’d do with a score set in the Second World War which, I assumed (rightly, as it happened), would eschew the traditional but quite effective, Ron Goodwin style approach to the onscreen antics of its protagonists and instead deliver something much more... um... Zimmer-like. I wanted to see if this kind of scoring would hold up to the subject matter. It does so admirably, as it turns out but, that being said, it’s not a typical war film either. Even so, Zimmer meets it more than halfway. I’ll get back to the music in just a short while but let me tell you a little more about the film itself.
Well, it’s a bit of a visual treat and that’s good because, as I said, it’s not your typical war film and there’s not a lot of dialogue in it... the main chunks of speaking going to Kenneth Branagh as an officer but even his dialogue is minimal compared to most other movies. It’s also not a film which captures, in any way, the epic scale of war... at least not in the same way that most directors would do it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s more like watching an intense, dramatic thriller than a big patriotic celebration and I think the reason for that is because the film doesn’t focus on big units of men moving around... well it does have that element, obviously but, it doesn’t focus on it...
Instead, it tells a story from the points of view of four main protagonists in different parts of the skirmish. We have a young soldier called Tommy, played really interestingly by a guy called Fionn Whitehead and he is on the beach at Dunkirk. He just wants to get off the beach and onto a boat, somehow, to escape all the killing going on around him. He’s one of those characters who any person would really want to be around because, just like Sandra Bullock in Gravity (reviewed here), wherever his character ends up, that’s where the most trouble and peril is going to hit. Stay away from this guy... he’s incredibly unlucky. We also have Kenneth Branagh as an officer on the same beach, waiting patiently for some kind of help to arrive to get his soldiers off to safety.
Then we have Mark Rylance playing Mr. Dawson... a civilian mobilised to take his boat out on a rescue mission to get the soldiers and who takes his son and another local lad with him plus... we have Tom Hardy as a spitfire pilot who sacrifices his best survival options in order to pitch in when it counts. I thought it was kind of interesting that Tom Hardy played the Batman nemesis Bane in the same director’s The Dark Knight Rises (reviewed here), mostly behind a mask and in this film he also, almost the whole time, plays a character hidden behind the mask of his flying outfit. Interesting that Nolan picked himself an actor who he knew, from previous experience, could deliver a performance with most of his face hidden from the audience. Good call.
As the little storylines unfold, the main dramas leave the Branagh officer part more as an anchor point which is not really going anywhere but which has this important character because you get a sense of ‘establishing info’ from him whenever we cut back to him. So the main dramas are Tommy trying to get away from conflict with every path he chooses seeming to get him closer to it, the noble spitfire pilot who is running out of fuel and needs to figure out when to turn back and we have the drama of Mr. Dawson and his companions after they pick up a shell-shocked soldier filled with the horrors of war, played by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy.
However, what’s really interesting... and I didn’t really realise this was happening straight away, is that the linear track of the film is chopped into little bits and we are crosscutting continually to bits of the action which are happening in a totally different part of the timeline. So, for instance, we can be watching an action or suspense scene cross cut with another scene which was occurring a day or so before but without any warning and, I have to admit, it took a little while for me to realise what was going on until I started noticing things like days scenes cut against night and the different characters looking at other scenes from a different point of view. It’s actually very clever in this regard and, as the film progresses, you get the sense of time zones speeding up to meet each other, somewhat, so that by the time you get to the end, you can place all the characters in roughly the same area at more or less the same time and see how the actions of one person in one place has consequences to another character in a slightly different chronological space.
Nolan also has a way of sometimes ‘hanging back’ in a shot and giving the camera POV a certain voyeuristic kind of feel. For instance, he might follow a character only so far into a shot and then stay put so you can see the character from afar interacting with a new environment... almost like using an establishing shot in reverse. Now I have seen this technique used before, most notably in Isabella, Duchessa Dei Diavoli (aka Ms. Stiletto, reviewed by me here) and Nolan does it really well here. It’s a great way to place your main protagonists into a situation while detaching you and letting you see a slightly bigger picture at the same time.
Now, I have to say that I did find some of the editing, even following this deliberate method of structuring the story, a little clumsy in parts. Things occasionally felt disjointed and popped me out of the narrative at some points but... Nolan is lucky in that he’s got Hans Zimmer suturing up all the little visual discrepancies that some of the audience might feel are there. Which, okay, is a standard role of film music anyway... it brings continuity across the cuts... but Zimmer really earns his keep here.
I was thinking about the relationship between composer and director as I left the cinema on this one because the music is a big factor in the success of this film, I feel. If you think about the huge impact made by the partnering of Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann you will perhaps remember the latter’s famous score for the former’s Psycho. A score written entirely for strings but which has a vast impact on the way the film was perceived. Even Hitchcock himself, before that score was written, was contemplating cutting Psycho down to an hour and using it as an episode of a TV show before Herrmann told him to hold on until he’d written something. The result was a score which many people regard as injecting pretty much all of the tension and unease you feel in Psycho when watching it. Without Herrmann’s music, the film would not be the powerful classic it is widely regarded as being today.
And I think, without doing Nolan a dis-service because his visuals and scenarios are quite intense in some places... that this is exactly the same thing happening here. I believe Zimmer’s score for this movie is responsible for, maybe, over 90% of the unbelievable ‘edge-of-your-seat’ moments in the narrative. There’s a really strong set of sequences near the start of the film where Tommy and a French soldier grab a wounded soldier on a stretcher and make a very long, fraught and suspense filled run to get him on the one leaving ship... in the hopes that they can get on it themselves. Even from this section, Zimmer’s music is full on tension filled suspense and it’s, wisely, mixed into the foreground of the audio track so that it can do its job as effectively as it does. And it continues to do it throughout, with a score which uses a recording of Christopher Nolan’s pocket watch ticking transcribed into a synthesiser and used, perhaps in a clichéd way, like a metronome’s heartbeat on the soundtrack which synchs with your own biology and ramps up and down with your emotions once you’ve got it in your head. I’m really looking forward to listening to the CD of this one away from the movie, I can tell you.
So yeah, that’s my take on Nolan’s Dunkirk. There’s excellent acting in a truly visual style... it’s the looks, pauses and reactions, not the words, which make for most of the drama. There’s some beautiful cinematography and some well designed sequences (such as a truly suspenseful part where Tommy is on a boat being slowly riddled with bullet holes... I won’t describe the whole scene and spoil it for you here, though) and there’s Hans Zimmer’s truly phenomenal score (which I was surprised to hear commented on by a random audience member as they were leaving the screening... more people are actually listening than I thought, perhaps). So, yeah, this one counts as my third favourite Christopher Nolan film, I think and, as such, gets a strong recommendation from me. War is hell... but it can also look and sound pretty nice with the right people behind and in front of the camera... so maybe give this one a watch.