Never has a film taken me into itself the way that Dunkirk did. Whilst studying history informs us of what happened, it isn’t until rare occasions, such as this, where the power of film can actually add the necessary emotion/feeling to that information; for one to really understand the terror and fight for survival that these humans, who actually lived through what you wrote about on that exam paper, endured.
To be fair, seeing it on the UK’s biggest screen, with one of the most advanced sound systems, certainly helped. However, at the same time, you couldn’t improve a turd by making it bigger. At this point, Christopher Nolan has made a fine art of working with the IMAX technology, as opposed to letting it do the work for him. With this remarkable tool, the audience is taken onto the beaches, into the air and onto sinking ships that have a fate far more terrifyingly blunt than that of the Titanic. All, may I add, without the need for 3D.
Now, the main debate that has been had over the film is the lack of character backstory: whilst some criticise its absence, others argue that it is about the whole situation and not the characters. Well, I’m here to say that is about the characters and that all necessary character development is shown through what is happening in the present. There’s no time in a war-zone to sit down and tell everyone your life-story; the point is that everything you need to know about every characters’ humanity is visually presented to you through their actions and the action that happens to them.
As a student studying the practice of scriptwriting, it is one of the golden rules that if you can execute a scene’s functions/purpose without the use of dialogue, don’t use it. With this remarkable screenplay, Nolan makes a point of how he needed barely any for the entire movie. Indeed, Dunkirk is a fine tapestry of visual storytelling. With the exception of some fantastic exchanges, with the very deliberate casting of a master of words such as Kenneth Branagh, most scenes involve between one-sentence lines to simply non-verbal cries. In such a high-budget production, this minimalist approach is such a bold one and one that, for myself at least, really hits it home with what the film is trying to do.
This film is a true ballet of suspense. Using techniques that have a similar DNA pattern to a well-made horror flick, the execution of the storytelling is what makes you feel the terror these soldiers really faced. For myself, this was most felt quite early on in the film: as planes approach the beach, Nolan pulls no punches in showing the audience what it’s like being exposed on a large open space with nowhere to hide.
Dunkirk is no less than a masterpiece and is the best example of a true-life event captured in a bottle that I have ever seen. It is honest and it is blunt, but it is never disrespectful by any stretch of the imagination.
A true testament to why films are best seen in a cinema.
Dunkirk, BFI IMAX London, 24/08/2017