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Dunkirk (2017)

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As build up towards the release of Christopher Nolan’s 10th full feature increased, there were a lot of lists flying around the twitterverse - In what order of preference do you put Nolan’s films?  It’s an extremely difficult question to answer.  Nolan’s a director whose films can reach out to a very wide audience.  If you’re after spectacle and story then you tend to have both in abundance, but if you’re keen to delve deeper and be challenged, then Nolan’s happy to give the brain a workout too.  He’s right up there for me, and I think I have always appreciated his love of film and respect of the craft.  He will use practical effects over CGI wherever possible (go and find a clip of Joseph Gordon-Levitt jumping round that spinning Inception corridor now), and hates 3D, believing instead in the traditional and more immersive (in my opinion) experience of projecting a film on the biggest screen possible.  Due to the additional cost, we only tend to pay up for an IMAX screening when the film really demands it.  Unless it’s Star Wars, Tom Cruise hanging to the side of a plane, or Joseph GL (again) walking across a wire between the Twin Towers then I'll tend to watch it on a standard sized screen.  Much of the anticipation around the release of Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, centred on what screen is best to see it on.  There are various options available, but seeing as they had somehow managed to film over 70% of it with the enormously clunky and heavy IMAX cameras, I didn’t think we had too much choice other than to cough up and see it on a screen the size of a house.  It was a good decision.
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Dunkirk explores the evacuation of 338,226 (of a possible 400,000) Allied soldiers stranded and surrounded by approaching German soldiers on the French beach of the same name.  Bomber planes pick them off from above and submarines cut off any naval supply line to get them out.  Although they can literally see home across the Channel, in reality they couldn’t be any further away.  As it was, the Royal Air Force provided the protection necessary for a fleet of 800 fishing boats to evacuate the men.  Nolan referred to it as a British subject that required an American movie film budget, as an explanation of why we haven't seen it in full on screen before.  When there's a film aiming to portray the realities of war, our minds immediately turn to the brutal horrors of Saving Private Ryan’s beach landing, and then more recently, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.  Their success is in showing how normal people deal with being faced with truly horrendous situations, unashamedly putting the dismembered bodies, blood, limbs and gruesome reality of battle front and centre.  Dunkirk though, is a 12A.  Rather than wincing at moments of horror, I was left afraid, panicked, tense and completely drained just like those on the Dunkirk beach (to much less of a degree!).  Dunkirk is an experience, and the idea is to disorientate and constantly build tension as the stakes are increased for various people across multiple locations and time periods. There is no scene where characters sit round a fire and give backstories about families and girlfriends waiting for them back home.  A scene such as that would be an unrealistic occurrence in a situation as manic as this, and there’s actually very little dialogue at all considering the amount of screen time.  Rather than resulting in 2-dimensional characters you care little for, for me I found it easier to transfer my thoughts and emotions on to these people and wonder what I would do in their place.  Suddenly it’s me on the boat as water rushed in, I’m watching a man walk helplessly in to the channel’s waves, and I’m urging my little sea boat to move quicker to get to help those men.  You barely see the enemy at all other than via their bullet fire and the planes flying above – this invisible enemy means the focus is entirely on the Allies trying to survive.  We go through this with them, and I was just as desperate for them to pull through as I would had I known they had three kids waiting for them back in Britain.
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One of the things I always forget about with IMAX is that the sell is not just about the size of the screen, but about the quality of sound system they use.  Before the trailers begin there’s normally a short IMAX intro countdown that is deafeningly loud to really show this off, and Dunkirk doesn’t let up with that throughout.  Whether it’s a Spitfire roaring overhead, a bomb crashing in to the sand just off screen, or Hans Zimmer’s ticking score ascending in pitch, Dunkirk does all it can to immerse you in the reality of the effects on screen.  That score is something else too.  Last year I did a blog post on my favourite Zimmer scores after having seen him play live in Birmingham, but that now already needs updating.  The music plays an immeasurable role in continually building and maintaining the exhausting levels of tension in Dunkirk.  Very soon the score begins to build, louder and louder, faster and faster, as it ticks along to the growing danger the main character finds himself in.  What’s hard to believe at that point is that the music actually continues to build on that, maintaining that tension and anxiety throughout.  I forever found myself gripping the side of my chair, pushed right back in to the back of it as I rode the terror ride these people were on, and the score had a lot to do with it.  I was surprised when I first saw that the run time wasn’t close to 2 hours, just because that’s unusually short for a Nolan film (and many modern films).  To his credit though, I wonder how much longer an audience would have last before completely burning out.  It never felt short, and as I say, I was completely drained (in a great way!) walking out of the cinema so I think Nolan had a good hold of how far he could stretch us and it.
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With very little setup or backstory, Dunkirk drops you in the middle of this awful situation with the visceral reality that only cinema can create.  Nolan is clearly a master of the medium, in full control of every technique available, and never drops the ball once in managing to maintain such a high level of tension over such a long period.  When you consider the topics and techniques Nolan has tackled in the past such as his manipulation of timelines, the story of Dunkirk sounded rather straight forward when it was announced as his next film.  Although it's nothing on the same level as a Memento or Inception, he does pull in those methods though.  As well as mixing three narratives: land, sea and air, he also splices together three time periods: one week, one day and one hour.  It's so cleverly done that I hadn’t got a full grasp of what was happening until about half way through when a certain character appeared on a boat.  I think the juggling of the differing timelines was done expertly well. Nolan’s in full control, and harnesses that steady rise in urgency until the eventually meet at the end.  Without the need for gimmicky 3D glasses, or D-Box simulator chairs, this is cinema at its immersive best, or as Nolan put it himself, "a cinema of experience".  It needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can get to, with the loudest sound system there is.  While other war films feel the need to show you the gruesomeness of war more, that isn’t to say Dunkirk is any less impactful, harrowing and heart-breaking.  There are various human, poignant moments that stick in the mind just as much as every swooping shot of a Spitfire dogfight. The acting by the stars is superb, whether that be the reliable veterans (Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy’s eyebrows), or the relative unknowns of Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, or wait for it… the revelation that is Harry Styles (he sure showed me).
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When the dust settle, Dunkirk may well be considered Christopher Nolan’s best film.  I think it's in with a real chance of an Oscar despite its summer release, and I’m not sure the last time that happened!  Is it my favourite of his though?  Inception and particularly The Prestige will always take some budging I'm afraid.  Films so often leave it open for a sequel, and Nolan tapped in to that technique to highlight that this moment in time is something of a prologue to the rest of the war and a turning point in it. I was left completely stunned walking out.  Believe the hype.

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