3 August 2017

Dunkirk review

Christopher Nolan is often accused of being an emotionless director, and while it's a criticism I've only ever half agreed with in the past, Dunkirk certainly doesn't provide much of a counter-argument. It's a movie he's been wanting to make for the last 25 years, one he deliberately put on the back-burner until he felt that he had enough experience directing blockbusters to do it justice - so why is it that Nolan's pet passion project a quarter of a century in the making feels so... well, passionless?

To be perfectly clear, it's not that Dunkirk is ever anything less than finely tuned and impeccably crafted, it's that there's simply not much more to it than that. By weaving through three overlapping time-frames that each follow a different part of the evacuation - land, sea and air - Nolan is able to ensure that the pace never dips for even a moment while also giving Dunkirk the ability to explore three very different types of action, and it is this variation that allows Dunkirk to remain spectacular throughout. It is, in effect, a roller-coaster, and as such its entertainment value comes far more from the up and downs along the way than than it does actually reaching its destination.

And from that perspective Dunkirk is difficult to fault, keeping its audience on the edge of their seats from its opening scene to its final minutes thanks to Nolan's sheer ability behind the camera. Interestingly for a war film, we only ever catch a mere glimpse of the enemy soldiers, a decision that only heightens the tension - danger could come from any direction at any time, keeping the characters we follow on the back foot throughout as they merely try to survive impossible odds rather than achieve any grand victory. Between excellent staging, a preference for practical effects and some truly brilliant sound design, Nolan ensures that we're right alongside these soldiers as they find themselves trapped on sinking ships or unable to hide from the enemy places screaming overhead, and the result is deeply engaging, at least in the moment.

But to what end? All this craft is ultimately in service of a film that feels surprisingly shallow and almost entirely uninterested in the events themselves, to the point where one has to wonder why Nolan even wanted to make Dunkirk. For all the effort that went into making it as historically accurate as possible, Dunkirk could be set on another planet without altering the thrust of the story or its function thanks to Nolan's unwillingness to really have a viewpoint or opinion. The evacuation of Dunkirk was arguably one of the most important events of the Second World War - so why does Dunkirk have nothing to say about it, instead acting as nothing more than an impartial observer?

It's this distancing effect that robs Dunkirk of much of the long-term impact it could have had, and while it might not be as big a deal in other circumstances, Dunkirk's lack of characters worth caring about only makes the aforementioned lack of perspective and purpose all the more noticeable. With the sole exception of Mark Rylance's Mr Dawson, the people we follow throughout Dunkirk are less definable characters and more avatars for us to experience the evacuation through - I'd have a hard time assigning any of them with a personality trait or characteristic, never mind remembering their names. And it's not that the performances are lacking - everyone from lead actor Fionn Whitehead to Tom Hardy to Harry Styles are giving it their all - it's simply that there is very little on the page for them to work with. We empathise with them in the moment in the same way that we'd empathise with anyone in danger, but when the music swells as unnamed soldier #1 survives a situation that just killed dozens others? It feels more than just a little odd - after all, we've been given no more reason to care about the guy who survived than we have anyone else, and that means that while full of visceral tension, it's also surprisingly low on emotional responses and, maybe more importantly, genuine drama.

And while the interchangeability of the soldiers just trying to get home might be the point, it only further increases that aforementioned distancing effect between the audience and the film itself. Ultimately, Dunkirk shows us a Christopher Nolan who rather than testing himself as a director and story-teller has chosen to play to his strengths and all but entirely ignore his weaknesses, and while it still ends up being quite the feat of film-making from a technical perspective, it also means that it never risks being a genuinely great movie. In the moment, Dunkirk is nothing short of an exhilarating thrill ride, and those looking for that won't be disappointed - but when we come to look back on the filmography of Christopher Nolan in a few decades, I can't help but feel that Dunkirk will be on the bottom half of that list.

3 stars

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