As much as I’d enjoyed The Dark Knight and Inception, I have to admit I’ve been down on Christopher Nolan’s work following the laughably terrible (yet for some reason widely lauded) Interstellar. This probably caused my delay in watching his most recent, Dunkirk.
That, and I’m not so big on war films, or at least not modern ones. Although I’m confident it can be done, war films with the hype that something like Dunkirk gets is near-impossible to make without slipping into the trap of ridiculous, overbearing nationalist chest thumping, which just isn’t my thing. British war films have generally been just as susceptible as, if blessedly more subtle than, their American counterparts. I’d have passed Dunkirk entirely if a similarly irony-poisoned friend of mine hadn’t strongly recommended it.
So here I am to talk about how Dunkirk was a really, really good film.
It’s sort of incorrect to refer to it as an action film but in truth, I’m not sure what else I should call it. There are lots of “action scenes” that stitch together to tell a long, complex story, which they tell exceptionally well. There is some dialogue in and around those scenes, but generally speaking, these are incredibly sparse. Or I should say, they seem incredibly sparse, because they convey so much less of the story than the action does.
And for all that lack of dialogue, the acting is mostly amazing. Tom Hardy in the cockpit of a Spitfire wearing a full mask and goggles etc. is entirely able to convey hope, joy, worry, fear, and despair wordlessly and in subtle ways. Cillian Murphy has a reasonable amount of dialogue but the bulk of his rather deep character he represents is conveyed through body language, beautifully. Kenneth Branagh is perhaps the closest thing to a narrator the film has, and yet he relies on one line at a time, intermixed with other imagery, to bring across everything he needs to.
All of this adds up to one of the more brilliant examples of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve probably ever seen on film. Once I realized what was going on it reminded me very much of one of my old favorites, Le Mans, a curious old Steve McQueen movie about my beloved endurance race that has almost no dialogue at all, but tells a complex story through a combination of actual racing footage and… well that’s it really.
Although I’m not sitting here bewildered and amazed and ready to proclaim Dunkirk the greatest film ever, I feel rather… deeply satisfied, I guess, at having watched it. There’s sort of nothing to pick at, nothing that I want to drag out and blame for wrecking the film. Generally speaking when I do get one of those things, it nags at me while watching the film. “That was stupid, why’d they do that, that really puts this next scene into a weird place, and now this storyline doesn’t fit, and…”. But that hasn’t happened at all here. It’s all perfectly formed. Like literally the only time I noticed that was a shot at the end where something looked too obviously like it was done with a greenscreen, and it was over in a moment.
Nobody did a bad job here. No iffy performances, no obnoxious, out of place lines, no side story to distract from the film. And that still drew me in and kept me watching, it was still compelling without needing to go out of its way to add comic relief or sympathetic characters. There was no need to force a love story where there wasn’t one. There was no need to try to give characters a deeper backstory: in fact most of them had no backstory at all.
To be fair, that trick wouldn’t work on all movies. Perhaps not on most: there has to be a certain amount of grounding to the plot, and in this case the history behind the film might fill in for more than I’m allowing here. Could the same thing have been made, and draw me in as well, in a completely new setting? I don’t know… I wish more film studios would give bold directors a chance to try it.
At any rate, while I won’t call this one of my favorites, this will stand up for me as a strong, good piece of filmmaking. Certainly better than most of the rest of the shit I’ve reviewed lately, and unfortunately it has me giving some serious side eye to the rest of the list I have on hand to watch over the weekend.