'Dunkirk' Review: Little Need For Dialogue In This Visceral Approach To War
Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July 2017
It must be the Brexit effect. Britain's filmmakers are busily reminding us of how great the country can be during a crisis – hence the recent run of films re-playing pivotal episodes from World War II.
In 'Dunkirk', writer-director Christopher Nolan has gone for the visceral approach. "Virtual reality without the headset", he calls it, and it's no idle boast. Everything has been meticulously – and effectively – designed to dissolve the barrier between you and the screen, starting with the relentlessness of Hans Zimmer's score, which is keyed to the crack of gunfire, the whine of a dive bomber's engine and the thump of a shell ripping into a ship loaded with troops.
The script is a tricky construction of interlocking stories with different time frames, which shouldn't work but does, moving between the action on land, on sea and in the air without losing momentum or sowing confusion. And there are no star turns. While the biggest name, Tom Hardy, is given the chance to radiate a little glamour as a Spitfire pilot, his is strictly a head-and-shoulders performance. In fact, it's all in the eyes. The rest of his face is obscured by a flying helmet.
And except for pop star Harry Styles, whom Nolan cast without knowing quite how famous he was, the young leads are relatively unknown. What's more, there's barely a chance to sort out one from another. Few words are exchanged. They get by with a rough-and-ready system of visual shorthand worked out in the desperate scramble to get themselves onto one of the evacuation boats. And it has little to do with camaraderie. What's keeping them together is their shared purpose – getting home.
They're backed up by a roster of stalwart British character actors. A coolly pragmatic Kenneth Branagh is the naval officer in charge of organising the boarding, Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked soldier dragged from the water and Mark Rylance is his rescuer. And here's another thing that appealed to Nolan: there isn't an American in sight.
The real heroes are the civilian volunteers who take off across the English Channel in their small boats to join in. Their role is to to ferry the men to the destroyers that are too big to get close to the beach, and they end up making all the difference.
The film was shot with IMAX cameras combined with 65-millimetre film. Otherwise, Nolan did things the old-fashioned way without CGI. He hired thousands of extras, searched out a dozen of the small boats that had been used in the evacuation and shot much of the film on Dunkirk beach itself, although it meant rebuilding the metre-long stone breakwater and pier that had been there in 1940.
It all paid off to produce a quintessentially British war story involving muddle and mess and accidental acts of bravery – true Brits displaying true grit rather than achieving glory, vain or otherwise.