Whether it’s the backwards-moving plot in Memento, the game changing Dark Knight trilogy or the ambitious and grounded sci-fi epic Interstellar, Nolan is always looking for a way to do something different. His stories are big in scale. They can take even the simplest of concepts and twist it into something unlike anything seen on film before. Dunkirk, on the surface, feels like a more straightforward entry into his filmography. It’s the real life recount of nearly 400,000 allied forces attempting to escape a German-surrounded beach in the midst of World War 2. But, knowing Nolan, straightforward storytelling isn’t an option, and he takes this simplistic premise and creates a war story unlike any other.
This isn’t a story of any one man. There’s no sole protagonist. It’s three stories intertwining to depict the horrors faced on that beach. Dunkirk is a movie about the experience, not the journey, with similarities to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, but taken in a completely new direction. Both films are retrospectively in the same mind frame. They’re war films about the terror of war, covering as much ground as possible and bringing with them a sensation of fear and no escape. With Dunkirk, paranoia is everywhere. You’re with these characters every step of the way, if they can even be described as characters. Everything is done with practical effects, from the ships to the planes to everything in-between, and it allows for an immersive, dialogue-less experience.
But, in maintaining the constant realism, that’s exactly what these soldiers are going through. In a real life situation, none of them would have a moment to stop and think about their next move. You don’t have time to prepare or look back. It’s run or die, and that’s where the film ambitiously leads. Not a single moment feels safe. Peril is but a mere minute away, and while several moments throughout hint towards an optimistic fate for our heroes, danger strikes in the most unexpected of ways, and I dug it. A scene towards the third act feels like a miraculous, conveniently timed victory, and it was lingering on feeling unsatisfying, but the enemy isn’t done yet, and it transforms the finale from an abrupt rescue to a tight escape mission.
This is one of the finest ensemble casts put to film in a very long time. The actor’s range from newcomers to Oscar winners to, yes, Harry Styles from One Direction. While Styles has stolen the spotlight during a lot of the press, Nolan and co. being bombarded with a plethora of One Direction related questions, he does give a shockingly able performance, perhaps even one of the best in the movie. His One Direction façade completely disappears, as he’s absorbed into this character. Also excellent is newcomer Fionn Whitehead and little known British actor Barry Keoghan. But, really, everyone in this film is utterly spectacular. Given the size of the cast, nobody really gets the spotlight for too long, but when on screen, they give it their all.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to experience Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight in glorious Ultra Panavision. Watching a film is pristine 70mm projection is extremely rare in today’s world, and it’s an opportunity I always love to attend. Dunkirk continues to ensure that 70mm is not a thing of the past. The camera work, shot on actual film, is stunning. Every frame is impeccably beautiful, devoid of colour but making the most of what’s there. Seeing these frames showcased the way they were intended furthers the immersive nature of the overall experience, and while watching it on a digital projector is sure to thrill, there’s nothing out there quite like watching it on 70mm.
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