Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

Synopsis is here:

Days before watching Dunkirk, I found myself irked by one or two prominent members of the film community claiming you 'must' see Dunkirk on IMAX. Like most well to do men about town (read: Goof-offs), I found myself bitching about it via social media.
Part of my anger stemmed from I was finding to be a disconnect from the so called social media group "film twitter" and those who we can call the main audience. It was something that came the night before while recording my weekly podcast Fatal Attractions, in which during a conservation about Crash, a distinction about film critics and audiences rose its head.

At this point in time, I like to try and consider myself as a film writer but also an audience participant and I find the ramblings of the film Twitterati often help bring about said disconnect. A cool club vibe that sometimes emanates from certain corners. I've perhaps not watched enough Agnes Varda.

I got praise from my brief "rant" and I was also roundly told that what was merely enthusiasm I had misconstrued as a demand. One gentleman who claimed this, I found also spoke about "credible reviews" on the film. See what I mean? The power of words. The cool club of credible reviews. As the world becomes more binary and the internet thrives more on absolutes to catch the eye, it becomes easier to be more averse to the language. This is coming from someone who really needs to lay off his own hyperbole.

Preferably the best way to watch a film is in a cinema with decent ushers and with audience members who aren't on their phones. Most other things are else optional luxuries. Much like the cinema itself. My screening of Dunkirk was in a ‘normal’ cinema rooted in the middle of my town with no extra wide screen bells and whistles. While I understand that Nolan’s use of IMAX/70mm has added to the cinematic experience. It was just more feasible for me to watch this movie like many patrons can only do.

35mm Digital and reader, I damn near married this film.

Yes, hyperbole rears its head here, but with a film such as this one, I find it difficult not to spout such inflation. I found Dunkirk to be a powerfully observed work full of evocative images and the type of immediacy that can feel lacking with other larger scale movies.

Larger formats can indeed enhance a viewing experience but they shouldn’t have to be key to immerse a viewer. Dunkirk works not just because we can now watch something like it in an upscale city cinema. It works because Nolan looks as if he’s really taken hold of elements that he has been obsessed with since first entering the scene. The Michael Mann like fascination with determined “men doing work”, the dissembling of chronological order and the slipping and shifting of time in general. All this is blended with Nolan’s familiar desire to pull at threads in which we’ve grown accustomed to viewing in a certain way. The film itself feels less like an archetypical 3 act structure blockbuster even though those elements exist within the movie. Dunkirk, much like the opening of Edgar Wright’s pop cinematic heist flick; Baby Driver (2017), holds moments of pure cinema. Exposition is extraneous (a bold contrast to Inception) and many of Dunkirk’s boldest moments work as they come across as a distillation of vision and moment. This is personal, expressionistic and yet clearly commercial filmmaking.

I’m sure the film will be considered an experiment by some. The story is read through the expressions and often wordless actions of its characters as opposed to dialogue. In fact, moments of dialogue come across more garbled than in The Dark Knight Rises (2013). Tom Hardy is again placed behind a mask and forced to act only with his eyes as they display the anxiety of the situation that is unfolding in front of him. Nolan’s willingness to believe that the audience will find clarity of story through the clarity of emotion is the type of bold decision making that has fallen down the rabbit hole of commerce when it comes to cinema of this magnitude. Like in so many of Nolan’s movies the essence of the story is simple. With Nolan’s films, they always are. Where is the issue lies is whether the filmmaker is conning the audience. In my opinion, Nolan is doing what he can to restructure how people can observe populist cinema and trying to do so without leaning on what can be viewed as crutches. With Dunkirk, he’s doing what he’s been doing since Following (1998), stretching the old fabric to find a way of making the clothes feel fresh. This doesn’t feel like a con. If one thinks so, I can only say that this output is far more satisfying than the repurposing of branding and franchise following that is being witnessed elsewhere.

Dunkirk’s intentional reduction of particular elements neatly coincides with the film’s uncomplicated take on war. Nolan; who stated in interviews for his wish to negate a more conventional style war film, delivers a text which instead takes a far more primal look at survival. Criticism toward Dunkirk has most been on the scant amount of plot and backstory towards characters. One critique stated has been the near inability to tell certain characters apart from others. This feels entirely by design, with a wish to instead focus on the pure immediacy of the situation.  It’s unsurprising that comparisons to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) have been made. While Spielberg’s film is one more interested in individualistic heroism, Nolan decides on eschewing this idea which in turn gives the film a more unique and at times more believable feeling. It’s not that the film doesn’t desire to give its characters compassion, it feels that such sympathies don’t just suddenly appear in the immediacy of such an event. Even then, as it is discovered within the film, sympathy slips and shifts as quickly the threat does.

This said Dunkirk wants its visuals to inform the story as opposed to blunt exposition. The backstory of the grunts on the frontline is not known? This is not true. The simple fact that the cast is age appropriate tells us what we need to know. As does a wonderfully simple moment involving a panic-stricken Cillian Murphy and a tiny bathroom filled with life jackets. The most backstory comes from Mark Rylance’s stoic civilian-cum rescue support. A final reveal about his character not only tugs at the heart strings but is given far more potency because it is withheld. It is a detail which could easily have been given from the moment we meet the character, but it’s is given a sense of dynamism by simply waiting for a later moment.

Similar can be said for Nolan’s fascination with shifting time frames. More so than Inception, however, with less vigour than Memento. The arrangement of images by editor Lee Smith, help powerful associations which would have perhaps not made as an effective impact with constructed from a more conventional narrative standpoint. The film’s mosaic like images may feel like a challenge to some. I remember the slash filmcast, for instance, had some criticisms with Nolan’s choices on when to focus on what. However, for myself, the films blended constructions of the various time frames, never felt confusing, only more fraught. This construction of the story gives the film’s outcome a stronger element of surprise. Although if theirs is one criticism I do have, the film’s climax has a smattering of “Hovis advert” which highlights a Britain which only really appears on the big screen. This maybe just my cynicism due to the fractured feelings surrounding the U.K right now, but I feel it’s fair to say that Nolan’s film pushes buttons in such a way, that it’s unsurprising that Nigel Farage retweeted his opportunistic mug next to a poster after watching it. I do wonder what he made of the film's credits, which, to me, suggests gratitude towards the E.U in the making of this film. Strangely It’s things like this which also make Dunkirk so fascinating. Its images can scream hawkish to some, yet it’s main emphasis (for this writer), is simply one of survival. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is sometimes so tightly composed that I found myself fighting for air. Once the film finds moments of calm with some of its more open visuals, the feeling was more of release than of political leanings. Even when the film seems to suggest them.
The criticisms towards Nolan’s editing of action again raise their head here. But the disorientation here is organised chaos and never the slap dash feel that betray other action orientated movies.

What’s really effective in the film is the action through character. As aforementioned, we understand Tom Hardy intentions so effectively by the top half of his face alone. Mark Rylance’s slow solemn decisions successfully carry a hefty load about them way before we find out why. The first moments of two young soldiers meeting each other of the beach are expressed with quiet nods and purposeful digging. The order of the images can feel askew, but the weight of them does not. The intensity of the each moment is further enhanced by the brooding score by composer Hans Zimmer.

Is Dunkirk Nolan’s best film? Such a knee-jerk question is often asked by film writers now as we look towards our recent generation of auteurs. In my screening, I found it to be his most emotive and immediate work. It’s certainly the most purposeful expression of his techniques currently. How essential the film becomes in the director’s oeuvre will matter more when time distances us away from it. Until then I will say, Dunkirk is currently the most affecting film I’ve seen this year. And I didn’t need IMAX to tell me so.