Dunkirk (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Dunkirk (2017)

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German forces have broken the Maginot Line in France and the remaining British troops have been ordered to evacuate.  On the beaches of Dunkirk, British soldiers struggle on land while the air force tries to keep German bombers away to buy time for a civilian naval fleet to arrive.  Christopher Nolan wrote the screenplay for and directs Dunkirk, which stars Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is easy to hand wave away.  The steady rhythm of wide-angle shots of desolation and close-ups of faces slowly overcome with fear, paranoia, and rage paced so tightly with Hans Zimmer's score that it could be disregarded as an overlong music video.  But that dismisses the storytelling possibilities of music videos and how, at their most striking, create a visual world unto themselves.  Truth be told, Dunkirk is not better than the best music videos (Nina Paley's video for "This Land Is Mine" is a better look at the futility of war), but as a mostly silent film punctuated with some well-executed tension and a pair of excellent performances it works.

The most potent tool in Nolan's box is Tom Hardy's performance.  Hardy is the kind of actor who thrives under creatively tight condition, bringing a masterclass grasp of camp to his otherwise shallow role in The Dark Knight Rises and utilizing the limited space of Locke for a blistering range of emotions.  The pressure cooker of the Spitfire cockpit isn't the place for grand gestures, especially when blown up in IMAX footage.  With a tightening of his brow and quick flick of his finger against the fuel gauge, Hardy does more to communicate the near impossible task of fending off the Nazi air forces than Jack Lowden - who plays another Spitfire pilot.  Hardy and Lowden's performances are a case in contrasts, the former realizing restraint and limited action are better suited than the overdone theatrics of the latter.

Tom Hardy's subtle performance gives Dunkirk a heft lacking in its rigid visuals.

Hardy holds the weight of responsibility of those in the air while Mark Rylance carries himself with dignity on the sea.  There's not a trace of the impish charm that won him an Academy Award for his work in Bridge of Spies.  In its place is an unsteady confidence, with his body and words cracking at the sign of resistance as his feeble vessel crosses the seas to help evacuate the stranded soldiers.  With very little civilian interaction in Dunkirk, Rylance takes it on himself to show him straining under expectations of the government while losing a bit of himself in the sacrifice of the younger generation.

A bit of Rylance's subdued performance might have served the other actors in Dunkirk well.  Kenneth Branagh is the worst offender as his tendency toward larger than life figures is ill-suited to the rigid and largely blank compositions of Nolan's visuals.  He sticks out as a beam to neither responsibility nor dignity, standing for nothing in particular, and seems to be waiting for a dramatic speech that never comes.  The other performers dutifully go about their job of shivering, arguing, or staring blankly ahead.  As such, no one else makes much of an impact.

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema doesn't have a glamorous job and Nolan's tendency toward the rigid  doesn't make Dunkirk very interesting to watch.  The otherworldly claustrophobia of Interstellar translates to many dull wide-angle shots where the threat is always over the horizon.  In the rare instances military and civilian craft meet, the image of the larger conflict dwarfing the civilians is reinforced too many times.  Even the moments that are a bit more stylized, like the opening shot of British soldiers wandering the streets as it rains propaganda, communicate little.  Compared to a similar walk in Satantango, which heralds the coming of hucksters and capitalism via two dark figures encircled with trash, Dunkirk vaguely grasps at the coming storm without fully visualizing it.

Dunkirk starts to work when the rigid images are broken.  There's a horrific inversion of freedom when the light of day breaks through the hull of a beached ship and threatens the lives of the soldiers within.  The bombing runs reach a different kind of terror by using the rigid framing as a canvas waiting to be ripped apart.  I'm so used to explosions going off instantly that the wait between bombers soaring ahead and the plumes of smoke and dirt erupting from the surface felt like a horrific eternity when only a few seconds passed.

Christopher Nolan's visuals have never been more restrained than they are in Dunkirk, resulting in a largely monotonous viewing experience.

What pushes Dunkirk from Indifferent to a cautious Like is the spectacular collage of sound and music in concert with these moments.  Zimmer's score isn't underlining emotions in Dunkirk, oftentimes it is the driving force.  The dead faced soldiers marching get an unnerving foundation of strings to signal the dread they dare not express.  Its most impressive moment takes direct cues from silent film with the arrival of a soon to be grounded angel prefaced with silence and bringing uplift in the music for the first time after a miraculous shot.

Dunkirk isn't as effective as Hacksaw Ridge or Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.  Nolan is too cautious in providing a neutral viewing point, rarely addressing the enemies by name and playing both sides of Winston Churchill's complicated legacy by chopping up his famous "We shall fight on beaches" speech in the closing moments.  Where Dunkirk succeeds is in Hardy and Rylance's performances, acting in communion with Zimmer's music.  I'm still of the school of thought that film needs to work visually first and then the other bits add texture, but Dunkirk provides the rare example of how cinema sometimes needs to be heard first, watched a moment later.

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Dunkirk (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Kenneth Branagh.

Posted by Andrew

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