Perspectives on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk
Dunkirk is one of those films that sets very high stakes for itself before the trailers are even released. Christopher Nolan took a risk tackling a subject that is still holds significance in the collective memory of so many. That said, the technical brilliance of the film is clear from poster to trailer to the film’s opening moments, so it’s to be expected that the Film In Dublin team would all end up watching Dunkirk on the big screen. We found that our opinions varied from Luke’s “all-out immersive assault on the senses” to “spectacle over emotion” and so we decided to collect some of our team’s reactions to one of the summer’s biggest films. Nolan has always been a divisive director and reactions to Dunkirk have been no different, so check out what our writers had to say.
Néil: Cool technical brilliance
There is no doubting the technical wizardry behind Dunkirk. As ever, Christopher Nolan demonstrates his ability to capture breathtaking set-pieces with aplomb and realise stories as colossal in scale as the Dunkirk beach evacuation. Hans Zimmer’s score intoxicates, the sounds of war resonate throughout, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema portrays the suffocating reality of war with real authenticity. However, Dunkirk finds itself opting for spectacle over emotion far too often.
As the tension ramps up from the very beginning, there is never a chance to properly introduce and develop the movie’s characters. The film uses limited dialogue in order to allow the filmmaking tools at its disposal to tell us this story, resulting in a missed opportunity that would have encouraged audiences to become more emotionally attached. When the film does explore issues such as the selflessness of those who answered the evacuation calls, the animalistic survival instinct of soldiers on the beach and the unflinching cruelty of war, we are quickly pulled back towards the ticking of clocks, the rattling of engines and the whistling of falling bombs. As such, the emotional arcs that the film attempts to resolve in its last act never land, suggesting that it could have benefitted from a more distinct narrative thread to tie it all together.
Although it is argued that there is a certain ‘coldness’ to all of Nolan’s films, I personally would disagree – we remember the beautiful final scenes of Inception as much as the winding and shifting skylines. In the same regard, The Dark Knight, Interstellar and The Prestige have all benefitted from a more emotional approach, coupled with impressive filmmaking and storytelling prowess. However, in this instance, it is this ‘coldness’ that limits Dunkirk’s ability to be an instant classic and stand beside the various other Nolan and war-time masterpieces. Dunkirk feels like it should be the next Saving Private Ryan or Come and See, with visceral filmmaking that attacks the senses and snaps audiences to attention. However, it never truly achieves this.
Jess: A sensory experience, not an emotional one
Dunkirk is a film you should try to get to a cinema to see, it’s one of those films that is a true cinematic experience. While it will still play well on small screens, it will definitely lose some of its magic. Nolan captured a real sense of expanse on the beach, making us feel as exposed as the soldiers stranded there. This is balanced well by the enclosed moments on the dinky pleasure yacht that we follow on its journey to retrieve ‘our boys’.
But Dunkirk falls at the same hurdle as most Christopher Nolan ventures. It’s cold. Considering the intensely poignant subject matter, the lack of emotion is perhaps even starker in his latest film. The timeline jumps seem to add little and pull us out of the narrative, maybe the reasons for these choices are clearer upon a second viewing but I’m of the opinion a film should read well the first time around.
Mark Rylance’s performance adds some much-needed sentiment but these moments are scarce. And I find it odd that in a film like this Nolan would choose to draw the most emotion not from the actual fray of the conflict but from the sidelines, which gives the impression that this wasn’t a directorial choice but was instead a product of Rylance’s talent. The closing scene of the film manages to ignite a sense of hope and triumph but to me it reads as tacked on, I understand that Nolan was trying to impart the utter sense of hopelessness that the soldiers felt but it failed to really connect for me.
Robert: Dunkirk conveys the horrors of war
The cinematic equivalent is of standing in a small room while the walls slowly close in on you, there is no arguing that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a harrowing and unique experience in the cinema. It is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen with its sweeping visuals and epic scope. Nolan attempts to immerse the viewer in the horrors of war, and for the bulk of the running time he succeeds. The lack of any levity in the film eventually becomes its undoing.
Nolan’s film is almost relentlessly oppressive offering the viewers no reprieve. The film feels like two hours of tension mounting with no release. Coupled with Hans Zimmer’s excellent but unremitting score the audience never gets a moment to catch their breath. With the exception of the Aerial sections repetition eventually sets in and you find yourself becoming increasingly detached from events on screen.
Dunkirk is still arguably Nolan’s greatest achievement to date. His trademark cold detached style serves the story well. The visuals are at times both horrifying and beautiful sometimes in the same scene. There is a refreshing lack of dialogue and the performances are perfectly understated. Tom Hardy in particular is the stand out delivering an entire performance with just his eyes.
Kelan: Zimmers score pulls Dunkirk together
I’ll need to start this by saying I really enjoyed the experience of watching Dunkirk – on a moment by moment basis the film is thrillingly immersive. Unlike Luke’s fairly glowing review however, I’m not so sure about the film as a whole.
Yes, technically Dunkirk is a very impressive film – seeing it in IMAX is as intense and terrifying an experience as you’re likely to have at the movies. The first half hour or so had me in the palm of its hand through every awe-inspiring moment. Where it starts to fall apart though, is that other than the overwhelming impact and primal dread of knowing this all actually (mostly) happened, the whole thing feels far too calculated, emotionally hollow, and even downright frustrating.
There’s a cold disconnect from the characters that makes it hard to invest in their struggle on a more intimate level, while too much time and effort had been dedicated to being unnecessarily “clever” with the film’s timeline. Its complex structure only served to pull me out of the movie when the events depicted on screen should have been drawing me in. As the film wore on I found it increasingly distracting trying to line the various threads up in my head. Not that any of it is particularly difficult to piece together, but Dunkirk fails to provide any clear justification as to why it needed to be told with this kind of puzzle-piece story structure to begin with.
Whats more, for a film that revels in its clockwork precision and apparent attention to detail there are a surprising number of moments that stand out for their complete lack of both. The geography of certain key sequences is left frustratingly unclear, while other scenes feel overly contrived in an attempt to manufacture drama – a heated argument over whether to kick one single person, half immersed in water, off of an overweight and rapidly sinking boat made so little sense to me it undercut any sense of tension the scene was aiming for.
Ultimately Hans Zimmers score carries a lot of these moments. It comes close to being overbearing in parts, but it injects a sense of drama that would otherwise be sorely lacking. A second viewing is in order (one that hopefully changes my opinion and allows me to put the timeline element to the back of my mind), but as a big fan of Nolan’s work, this is the first time one of his films just didn’t really click for me.
Now you’ve heard our thoughts, why don’t you see Dunkirk for yourself and let us know what you think?