Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dunkirk - stunning cinema with evacuation story allowed to eclipse the cast (QFT in 35mm from Friday 21 July)

The creative hands of Christopher Nolan are all over his new film Dunkirk as writer, director, producer and even arbiter of the distribution media. It reanimates the history books that describe the days in 1940 when victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as upwards of 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk where they had been trapped, surrounded by the German Army and being picked on by the Luftwaffe.

Nolan follows a handful of key characters. But unlike most disaster films, we never find out much about their back story or motivation. They’re just familiar faces there to juxtapose, and help weave together, the different strands on the ground, at sea and up in the air.

The film begins with Tommy running through the streets of Dunkirk, under fire. The soundscape is intense. And as the young soldier ducks behind the sandbags and reaches the beach, the visual width opens up and the scale of Nolan’s vision is revealed.

A young boy jumps on board his friend’s father’s weekend boat to help the war effort and sail to Dunkirk to rescue the troops. This storyline brings the civilian population into an otherwise military sphere of operations. Spitfire pilots defend the skies above the beaches being evacuated and try to protect the mixed flotilla of vessels sailing towards France.

Military officers assess the chances of survival and debate the times of the tide (leading to the gratuitous but funny line “it’s a good job you’re army and I’m navy”).

Kenneth Branagh stands on a pier pulling excellent faces for despair, hope and resolve. Mark Rylance sees the bigger picture as he holds his pleasure cruiser’s course for France despite protestations from a very disturbed Cillian Murphy who us rescued along the way. Fionn Whitehead plays a central army private along with Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles). Up in the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are anything but gung-ho in their dogfighting Spitfires.

There is as much fear and cowardice on display as heroism. Survivors often seem to be driven towards self preservation, making the luck that propels them towards staying alive (even at other people’s expense). After a while it becomes nail bitingly tense, and even through the success of the evacuation by sea is known by most before they enter the cinema, the feeling of defeat in the hearts of the returning soldiers adds a poignancy to the tale.

The action is self-explanatory and dialogue is used sparingly. Often the soundtrack and music are given priority and allowed to wash over the spoken words anyway. Hans Zimmer uses the mechanical groans of distress that emanate from torpedoed ships to sustain the beat.

Nolan messes with time, stretching and compressing it to fit the rhythm of his plot. It only becomes annoying at the end when he brings together the returning armada and a vulnerable plane (which glides nearly as long as the boats motor back across the Channel). It’s a brave departure from his back catalogue of blockbuster films. There are no superheroes. And it is perhaps cowardice on the great director’s part that he gives in to using the familiar strains of Elgar’s Nimrod (albeit at first disguised) to underscore some key scenes, bringing a smidgen of jingoism to a film that didn’t require it.

Dunkirk is a stunning piece of cinema that recreates and brings to life a well known scene from the Second World War. Despite the scale and sophistication of the production, it stays unfussy to the point of modesty and only stays on screen for 106 minutes, allowing the evacuation story to keep the focus rather than the fine cast. A grown-up film from Mr Blockbuster.

Queen’s Film Theatre are showing the 35mm print version of Nolan’s film for the first week of its run until Thursday 27 July. With soft edges, artefacts, and a colour scheme that today feels straight out of an Instagram filter, the experience adds to the realism of footage that could have been captured during wartime. (That’s the version that was previewed and the basis of this review).

After the first week, the QFT switches to the 4K digital version – using their shiny new projector – and having seen a few minutes of Dunkirk in 4K, it’s quite a different film, with a much sharper, more modern, action adventure feel and much more definition to the surround sound.

Dunkirk is being shown in the QFT (and other local cinemas) from Friday 21 July. It’s history that has not been narrated within an inch of its life – or truth – and history that, while told only from an Allied perspective, has not been wrapped in a large flag that distracts from the horrible reality of war and the decisions people take in war. Christopher Nolan should be proud of this film: it may well be his best.

No comments: