Sunday, 23 July 2017

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)


A stellar World War Two film, Dunkirk is the story of an army's survival, defeat salvaged from the jaws of catastrophe as seen through the eyes of the combatants.

Three separate but convergent stories related to the evacuation of the defeated British Army at Dunkirk, France in 1940 are recounted simultaneously. In the first story young British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) barely survives patrol duties in the town and flees to the beach where he tries to find his way onto an evacuation ship. But with the beaches under fire from German guns and aircraft, the injured are being evacuated first. Over the course of a week Tommy teams up with Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), a soldier of few words. They rescue fellow soldier Alex (Harry Styles) from death by crushing and then attempt to smuggle themselves on-board any available outbound vessel.

The second story takes place over one day and features civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his teenaged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) responding to the British Navy's call for assistance. Without waiting for official help they set sail from England in Dawson's small boat with their eager helper George (Barry Keoghan). The Dawsons soon pluck a shell-shocked mariner out of the water, and doggedly continue on their way towards the hell of the Dunkirk beaches.

The final story takes place over one hour, and centers on Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of three Royal Air Force pilots flying towards the skies over Dunkirk to provide what support they can and counter the German air threat. Farrier engages in dogfights with Luftwaffe fighters and attempts to shoot down bombers targeting evacuation ships. Gradually Farrier becomes increasingly isolated and low on fuel.

Meanwhile, the Navy's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is doing his best to organize an orderly withdrawal of more than 300,000 men in the face of hostile seas and incessant enemy pressure.

Written, directed and co-produced by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is a beautifully overwhelming and all-encompassing multi-sensory experience. Eschewing traditional narrative structures in favour of telling a story with barely any dialogue, no defined heroes and no venomous villains, Nolan allows the evacuation itself to take centre stage as a seminal event and pursues it from the land, the sea and the air.

Whereas Saving Private Ryan was about the ethos of a generation, Fury delved into the limits of sacrifice and Hacksaw Ridge focused on one individual's private war against war, Dunkirk is about a nation's psyche. As such Nolan is less interested in the mechanics of battle or individual actions; rather this is a film about collective character being forged through the mist of a stunned and stunning reaction to a devastating retreat.

Each of the three stories generates specific momentum and unrelenting tension. The fear, frustration, hunger and desperation of the massed soldiers builds up in the eyes of Tommy, Gibson, Alex and others, willing to try anything to get on a boat, despite the danger of being blown out of the water by the marauding German bombers. The stoic response of the civilian population is represented by Mr. Dawson and his son Peter, and their chapter most embodies the spirit of Dunkirk as a country comes together to rescue its sons. Meanwhile the dogfights and aerial duels in the sky are superbly choreographed, the pilot Farrier aware that his contribution can only be small but yet decisive in terms of morale and for the lives he may save.

To augment the impressive vistas of a gloomy beachfront war theatre, Hans Zimmer provides a soundtrack that is simultaneously filled with dread, anticipation and extreme anxiety, adding to jarringly loud sound effects that bring the horrors of war to the fore. Every bullet in Dunkirk registers as a transmittal of potential death, every bomb and torpedo an individual parcel of destruction. The few lines of dialogue suffer in comparison and are often drowned out or garbled.

In the absence of a focus on individuals, Nolan's cast is filled with newcomers and relative unknowns in most of the key roles. Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Kenneth Branagh as the pier master Commander Bolton and Tom Hardy as the pilot Farrier share the most prominent acts of above-and-beyond valour. On the beach, the widescreen is filled with thousands of startled young men maintaining relative calm and some discipline in the face of enemy fire as they patiently await either rescue or death.

Dunkirk is war in its unspoken complexity, death, hope, bravery and astonishing selflessness coming together to define a nation and write a momentous chapter in a history-defining conflict.






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