Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
There is a long-standing urban legend that audience members fled their seats in terror during the premiere of the Lumière Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train. The train in the revolutionary 1896 Short Film came right at the screen and the audience feared it would run them over. The rumour has since been debunked, and our understanding of Film as a medium has grown substantially since. But 121-years later, I watched people’s fearful reactions watching Dunkirk and could swear they felt like they were in just as much danger as the cast is on-screen.
The story of the evacuation of the titular town is extraordinary to say the least – but Director Christopher Nolan chooses to only tell portions of it through different timelines and points of view. The action jumps rapidly between the army troops waiting to be rescued on the beach, the British sailors called in to assist with the rescue and the pilots fighting in the air. It is an interesting experiment (akin to the overlapping structure of his brilliant work in Inception), and one that keeps the central rescue goal at the forefront at all times. The timelines do eventually merge together during the Film’s Third Act, but not quite as cohesively as I would have hoped given the wild variances in timing.
I mention all of this because Dunkirk has very little story and sparingly few lines of dialogue. The cast are all effective in their roles (including Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, Oscar-nominee Kenneth Branagh and former One Directioner Harry Styles), but you are never given any real insight into who any of these characters are or what has brought them to this point. They are barely given proper names. Barry Keoghan’s George is given some minor depth, but it practically gets in the way of Lee Smith’s tightly-wound editing. The central goal of rescuing the troops stuck at Dunkirk is the crux of the entire Film from the very beginning – and Nolan never affords any time to slow down to develop his characters properly.
Instead, this 106-minute blockbuster – Nolan’s shortest in nearly two decades – becomes an experimental exercise in tension and intensity. I held my breath through most of the Film, completely unsure of what obstacle he was going to throw at his cast next. Nolan ratchets-up the suspense moment by moment, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unbelievable heart-pounding, ticking clock score, and creates the most purely cinematic experience since Avatar. This may seem outlandish, but I cannot remember the last time I watched a Film that begged to be seen on the biggest and loudest screen physically possible. The action and wartime horror he captures are simply spectacular, and the Sound Design is so detailed and authentic that I continually needed to check my surroundings to prove I was still in a theatre. IMAX cameras have become more mobile in the nine years since The Dark Knight – to the point where the camera almost feels like its own character. The fact that so much of the Film was shot practically adds to just how stunning Dunkirk is to watch, and further cements Nolan’s work as game-changing.
Dunkirk is cinema in its purest form. It is an experience that begs to be seen on a large format IMAX screen (preferably 70mm if possible), and one that will not be easily replicated at home. Nolan has been a longtime proponent of Film and Cinema, and Dunkirk is his most ambitious and most accomplished Film to date. It may lack story and depth, but do not let that dissuade you. This is one of the best blockbusters of the summer, and is an incredible piece of cinematic spectacle that we will be talking about for years to come. This summer has been a bit of a mixed bag Film wise, but now we know why: we were all waiting to see Dunkirk.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release DUNKIRK Friday, July 21, 2017.