By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***1/2 out of *****.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s World War II film, Dunkirk (2017), was a strangely distant experience; all spectacle and little heart. The photoplay ran one-hundred and six minutes. Throughout that span, I was continuously aware that I was sitting in a darkened theater. My psyche was always cognizant that the harrowing images I was being submitted to were simply vivid projections cast onto a silver screen. Therefore, I was never pulled into the intensity of combat exemplified. Such is unusual given how meticulously and intimately it is recreated in Nolan’s tenth feature.
Notwithstanding, I found myself in awe of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s eye-popping cinematography. Just as often, I appreciated the detailed build-up of the affair. The basis of which concerns the violence which ensued when members of the German army encompassed soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France. Such a hostile encounter erupted into a chaotic evacuation from the beaches and harbor of the title town in Northern France. The date this event, which became alternately known as Operation Dynamo, transpired was May 26th – June 4th, 1940. Nolan’s small-scoped, yet determined, filler-free saga is a naturally engaging chronicle. It is one that should’ve amounted to more.
The fictional, one-dimensional individuals Nolan filled this true tale with were provided solid enactments. This is granted the limited material they were given. For example, Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy were adept. Tom Hardy’s turn as Barrier, a pilot, and Kenneth Branagh’s representation of Commander Bolton was memorable. The effects were a massive achievement. Lee Smith’s editing was just as beneficial. Even though the sound was poor, the make-up and costume design was stellar.
Additionally, Nolan utilized several different perspectives into the narrative. His trademark non-linear approach was also displayed to grand consequence. These elements were a source of unremitting fascination. Nolan’s stylistic approach in Dunkirk was relatively straight-forward. This became especially accurate when compared to the intricate complexity he attempted in movies such as Following (1998), Memento (2001) and Inception (2010). Nevertheless, it was a smart decision. Such fit the tone and attitude of his latest opus exceptionally. Similarly, Nolan’s direction was dazzling. This is even if his scripting only worked on a serviceable level throughout the account. Correspondingly, I embraced the old-fashioned, epic feel that coursed proudly through the exertion. Still, it failed to mask what an empty exercise Nolan’s latest proved to be.
During my sit-through with this Warner Bros. co-distribution release, I also respected how masterfully Nolan paced the piece. This esteem stemmed further when noting how magnificently he constructed the wall-to-wall scenes of peril. The same can be said of the deftness with which Nolan conveyed the confusion and totality of war. This is through the lens of a single skirmish. Other touches, such as the ticking clock sounds heard in Hans Zimmer’s sweeping (and occasionally off-putting) score, created a clever thematic bridge. This is to the connective subject unveiled in much of Nolan’s work: time itself.
But, my attention remained in the present. The illusion that I had been transported back to the historical episode Nolan had spun into cinema didn’t overcome me. This is even after considering the visual triumph Nolan honed. Such a deep-seated impression constantly arose within me regardless of the high-caliber success Dunkirk, which frequently reminded me of Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece, Das Boot (1981), generated. This is in its intended purpose to tax me as a viewer. Such is via its endless barrage of taut, death-defying instances. Even so, the lack of depth and sentimentality, combined with the utter disinterest Nolan expresses in fleshing-out those we follow through the configuration, was a problem. This sensation lingered even with the knowledge that Nolan was deliberately engaging in this developmental deficiency. Such was incorporated in an admirable effort for audiences to look at all those we come across in the labor as equals.
The result is a well-meaning and crafty excursion. The picture, which was sturdy throughout, is technically brilliant. Many of its arrangements, such as the quiet sense of isolation which punctuated the opening seconds, haunted me in retrospect. Despite its obvious prowess, it left me underwhelmed. This is because in its anticipation to stun bystanders with its phenomenal sights, it ignored two principal ingredients of storytelling. They are the concepts of caring for your characters and emotional immersion. If anything, Nolan has showcased that you need the former to get the latter. With the ever-extant shortcomings of Dunkirk, he also demonstrated that these are essential in making a rousing undertaking such as this a genuine classic. For without these items a contribution to celluloid, however skillfully made, is merely another uninvolving illustration; a motionless marvel sitting silent and forgotten in the shadows.
(PG-13). Contains violence, adult content and profanity.
Dunkirk was released in theaters on July 21st, 2017.