DUNKIRK

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - NICK DE semlyen

Is Christo­pher Nolan’s epic war movie 2017’s best movie set on a beach? Since its main com­pe­ti­tion is Bay­watch, what do you think?

CHRISTO­PHER NOLAN’S NEW film may be his The Long­est Day, but it’s very close to be­ing his short­est film. In fact, at a mere 106 min­utes, Dunkirk is the first Nolan movie to dip be­neath two hours since In­som­nia, and is only un­der­cut by his mi­cro-bud­get 1998 de­but

Fol­low­ing. But dis­card any sus­pi­cions that may prompt about scal­ing down of ambition. Ef­fec­tively one enor­mous, stun­ningly ren­dered and thun­der­ously in­tense set-piece stretched to fea­ture length, Dunkirk thrusts you into a pres­sure cooker and slams the lid on. There’s a very good rea­son it doesn’t have a more ful­some run­time: au­di­ences would likely have stag­gered out with PTSD.

The sce­nario is sim­ple — hellishly so. Eight months into World War II, fol­low­ing a se­ries of set­backs, roughly 400,000 Bri­tish troops find them­selves stranded on the shores of North­ern France. Be­hind them, Nazis are clos­ing in. Bombs fall from Stukas in the sky, tor­pe­does whizz in from U-boats in the sea. And ahead lie 39 nau­ti­cal miles of grey, churn­ing wa­ter sep­a­rat­ing the sol­diers from home, with nary a boat to come to their res­cue.

While there is a high-rank­ing naval of­fi­cer on hand (Kenneth Branagh) to play Ad­mi­ral Ex­po­si­tion, fill­ing in the big pic­ture while sur­vey­ing the night­mare from a pier, Nolan doesn’t bom­bard us with in­for­ma­tion. He knows it’s more pow­er­ful to sell the hope­less­ness of the wind-blasted beach with a stark, sim­ple im­age, such as the mo­ment in which a Tommy sim­ply gives up and wades into the wa­ter. Dunkirk is first and fore­most a mood-piece, and a hugely ef­fec­tive one. It doesn’t hurt that Hans Zim­mer is on fe­ro­cious form, his score by turns throb­bing like a heart and tick­ing like an an­gry stop­watch.

But if the movie’s set-up is ba­sic, its struc­ture is any­thing but. No film­maker is as fas­ci­nated by

time as Nolan, and here he ap­plies the tem­po­ral tricksi­ness he pi­o­neered with In­cep­tion, in­ter­cut­ting three time­lines that move at dif­fer­ent speeds. So we fol­low wan young sol­dier Tommy (Fionn White­head) on the land for a week, plucky yachter Daw­son (Mark Ry­lance) on the sea for a day, and stoic RAF pi­lot Far­rier (Tom Hardy) in the sky for an hour. The re­sult, as the cri­sis hur­tles to­wards its cli­max and the trio of per­spec­tives con­verge (and over­take each other), is metic­u­lous and mes­meris­ing. And, in the case of a se­quence which cuts be­tween two char­ac­ters try­ing not to drown, al­most un­bear­ably stress­ful. There have been many World War II epics — there’s even been one called Dunkirk be­fore, made in 1958 — but there’s never been one like this.

An­other point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion: there’s lit­tle em­pha­sis on der­ring-do. Rather than hero­ics, Nolan is con­cerned with what men can en­dure.

Dunkirk is a study of peo­ple un­der im­mense pres­sure, from Ry­lance’s civil­ian-on-a-res­cue­mis­sion (call him the FBG — Friendly Boat Guy) to Cil­lian Mur­phy’s trau­ma­tised wreck-sur­vivor (cred­ited only as ‘Shiv­er­ing Sol­dier’) to Harry Styles’ bol­shy in­fantry grunt (an im­pres­sive de­but per­for­mance). At this dark­est of hours, some of them crack; oth­ers hold firm. But all of the arcs are ef­fec­tively un­der­played, with muted per­for­mances, no big speeches and, in the case of Tommy, the ter­ri­fied au­di­ence sur­ro­gate, al­most no talk­ing at all. It could be ar­gued the char­ac­ters are too thin, but at least there’s none of the melo­drama of, say, Ti­tanic or Pearl Har­bor, two other epics based on real-life dis­as­ters. If any­thing, Dunkirk hews to­wards the art­house, with the melan­choly, spume-flecked tableaux it lingers on beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by

In­ter­stel­lar DP Hoyte Van Hoytema. Where it does de­liver on ac­tion is in the sky. To­day’s au­di­ences have spent decades watch­ing dig­i­tal dog­fights in Star Wars movies, them­selves orig­i­nally in­spired by World War II movies such as Twelve O’clock High. Nolan gets the wow fac­tor back by strip­ping back the pix­els, shoot­ing real Spit­fires on real sor­ties above the real English Chan­nel. The re­sults are in­cred­i­ble, par­tic­u­larly on the vast ex­panse of an IMAX screen, with the wob­bly crates veer­ing and soar­ing above a mass of blue. As with the men be­low, the pi­lots are out­num­bered and outgunned, head­ing into a hope­less sit­u­a­tion, but not let­ting it af­fect their tra­jec­tory. The phrase “Dunkirk spirit” was coined fol­low­ing the events of May 1940, and Dunkirk cap­tures it in spades.

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