I love Christopher Nolan films. I love them for many different reasons, but mostly I love them for their uniqueness. There is a particularly ‘Nolan-esque’ quality to all his films – there is no other way to describe this – they are all utterly distinctive.
The only standard by which to judge a Christopher Nolan film is to compare it to another Nolan film. I often say that Quentin Tarantino films cannot be compared to anything other than Tarantino films and Christopher Nolan has carved out his own specific niche as well.
When I found out that Christopher Nolan’s latest film project would be the story of a World War Two evacuation of Allied troops from a French beach, naturally I was intrigued. This is not exactly a unique story. Dunkirk is history. It’s taught in schools.
Everyone knows how the story ends and if you don’t know how the story ends its fairly easy to Google it and find out any number of details. It’s basically the Pearl Harbour of the British involvement of WWII in that it is the country’s most famous and defining moment of the war.
Setting the Stage for Dunkirk, the Film
So it begs the question: HOW? How was Chris Nolan going to take this piece of history and present it in a way that is different and interesting and new? Because, let’s face it, for the most part a war movie is a war movie is a war movie; and I can’t say that I’ve ever particularly liked war movies.
As with all of Nolan’s films, Dunkirk is not your typical war film. Yes there are explosions and gun fire and aerial warfare and people dying but the experience of it is not like other films that I’ve seen which deal with war.
The experience of watching Dunkirk is jarring but not because you’re cringing at blood, guts or even death. It’s jarring because you feel so much while watching it. Dunkirk is not so much a movie that you watch as it is a movie that you experience on a number of levels.
The Narrative in Dunkirk
There are three main narratives in the movie. Firstly, you have the experience of the men on the beach; the some 400 000 British and allied troops who have become trapped on a French beach, told through the perspective of young soldiers desperately trying to get home by any means.
Secondly there is the experience of the men in the air who have been dispatched to Dunkirk to provide air support and attack the German bombers who are picking off the soldiers and rescuing ships from the air – this perspective provides an element of seriousness and mission-mindedness to the film because they are acutely aware that the soldiers are relying heavily on them.
Lastly there is the experience of the civilians who answered the call to assist in rescuing soldiers from the beach (because large ships could not come close enough to the shore) told from the perspective of a father and young men desperate to be useful despite not being soldiers.
These different perspectives make the film an intimate experience despite it having obvious ‘summer blockbuster’ written all over it. It also allows Nolan to play with that time and perspective in an interesting, Nolan-esque way.
The Experience that is Dunkirk
The enemy in the film is unlike any other I’ve seen in a war movie in that they are largely faceless. In fact, barring a fighter plane or two one hardly sees this German force but their presence is felt acutely in the explosive gunfire and bomb blasts. The thing is that you don’t miss this element.
You don’t need to see the enemy to know that they are there and, in fact; not seeing them makes their presence that more menacing and terrifying. You feel their presence in an almost similar way that those soldiers would have felt it and that lends to the overall experience of the film.
Another element that is almost ‘missing’ in a sense is the dialogue. Dunkirk is largely wordless. The lack of dialogue means that much of what happens in terms of the interaction between characters relies on the eyes and facial expressions of the characters.
There are some really powerful moments created because of this. This helps the audience to experience the story rather than being told everything that they should think or feel and also adds to the intimacy of the storytelling. It also means that the little dialogue that exists is more meaningful and thought provoking at times.
What is present is the spectacle. One expects a level of expansiveness from Christopher Nolan and this is no different. This film delivers some amazing moments of cinematography and uses the camera as a means to tell the story rather than just being the thing capturing the action.
I will suggest that if you are able, go and see the film in IMAX. It was shot on IMAX cameras and as such is meant to be watched in this format. (Trust me, I’ve watched it in multiple formats)
The IMAX experience also makes the sounds of the film that much more effective. Sound and the lack of sound is another element that is used as a storytelling element in the film.
Gunfire, bombs and silence are used with dynamic effect as is the Hans Zimmer soundtrack with the ever-present ticking clock which adds urgency and desperation to the situation.
The pace of the film feels relentless. Literally the movie is very short by today’s blockbuster standard at almost fifteen full minutes shy of two hours and the action moves along quickly because of this.
Finally going to see #Dunkirk today! Well for the first time as least lol
— Tiffany (@tiffanyanne2706) July 28, 2017
— Tiffany (@tiffanyanne2706) July 30, 2017
The few moments of quiet are always short lived and echo in some ways the war experience itself where often the minute you feel settled and comfortable or safe that is when someone starts shooting at you or dropping bombs in your direction. You don’t get to breathe and as an audience member you often feel as unsettled and shell shocked as the characters themselves.
I could go on and on about this movie which of course seems to be something that Christopher Nolan intends with his films; to make the audience think about something other than the ordinary. The movie is not without faults, anything I’ve mentioned here could be taken apart and one could find fault in them.
I just happen to think that if you’re going to focus on faults then you’ll be nit-picking and maybe missing part of the point which is telling this piece of British History in a unique and interesting way. I liked the movie. It ticked all the boxes I wanted it to tick and didn’t disappoint my expectations in any way. It did everything I wanted it to do and a few things I didn’t expect.
I feel I would be remiss as both a Nolan fan and a (unashamed) One Direction fan to completely ignore the Harry Styles factor in the film. Much was made of the popstar’s casting; many were convinced that it was nothing more than a stunt casting that was done to draw audiences and ensure revenue.
I never believed that Nolan would do that, it’s not really his style. He’s had to defend the casting, making it clear that the part was earned and not just given. Styles handles his first film role well, doing as good a job as any of the other young leads (among them Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney) and managed to make even a die-hard fan like me forget that it was even him. That being said I think that any actor will rise to the occasion when they have Christopher Nolan guiding them.
All in all Dunkirk is worth a watch (or two) whether you’re a history buff, a Nolan fanatic, a war film aficionado or even just want to see Harry Styles on a massive screen. Whatever your reason I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
What did you think of Dunkirk, and in which format did you watch the film? Let’s discuss. Enjoyed this review? You can find more full reviews of some of our favourite films on the BTG Lifestyle blog. Tiffany also reviewed Interstellar for us a few years ago; check it out below.
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