Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s latest comes at you with an eye popping, arresting visual and sound design but not much else. Without a solid narrative, any emotional engagement and a messy use of non-linear story telling, Dunkirk is a frequently repetitive, ear splittingly loud fictionalised account of a WWII event which masks its recessions by an overbearing score.

Credit be to Nolan for bringing this film home at under 110 minutes, as anyone walking into a World War Two movie could easily be prepared for a three hour opus. Though a standard war movie is not what Nolan sets out to achieve in Dunkirk, a film which was pitched to Warner Bros as a ‘virtual reality experience without the glasses’. Taking in his love for shooting on film, Dunkirk sports a mixture of both IMAX and 65mm photography to provide a wholly immersive experience.

To that end, the visual experience of Dunkirk is an intense and fairly spectacular. The opening moments (and, arguably the best in the film) see us on the streets of an abandoned Dunkirk as three exhausted U.K. soldiers look for water and respite before a hail of bullets descend upon them from an unknown location. An opening devoid of dialogue, it’s a punchy immediacy that thrusts the viewer into terror of war and it works beautifully.

It’s after this that the film sees itself anchored on the beach of Dunkirk where some 400,000 UK and French soldiers are cornered by an advancing enemy (the Nazis are never referred to as ‘The Germans’ or ‘The Nazis’ – they are simply known as ‘The Enemy’). This is where the narrative splits into three non-linear story lines involving a civilian vessel sequestered to rescue soldiers off the beach, two spitfire fighter pilots, and a young soldier desperate to get home.

Sounds like rousing stuff. Amassing a roster of fairly hefty U.K. talent in Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, and Jack Lowden, you’d be well placed to assume a solidly engaging emotional drama would underpin the action. Sadly, it doesn’t.

The narrative throughlines range from uninvested to arbitrary to ludicrous given the film maker is less interested in emotional resonance and more in visual spectacle. Nowhere near enough time is given to any of these characters to make them meaningful as we happily jump from story to story like a kid playing hopscotch after three cans of red bull.

Worse still, given the sheer lack of a developed narrative, the film slavishly repeats itself with the viewer feeling a sense of deja vu after the umpteenth boat rolls over or the 6th or 7th panoramic dogfight in the skies. It’s all technically spectacular, but profoundly lacks the emotional impact a film like this needs to really bring it home.

To mask the narrative recession and ineffectual use of a non-linear structure, Nolan engages frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer to fill the hole with a bombastic, deafening score which turns every scene into an overloaded sonic crescendo.

Technically is where Dunkirk shines, much of the action set pieces and aerial photography is jaw dropping stuff. The sound mix and design is also top notch as bullets sharply crack in your ears, the seats and walls tremble as the bombs explode and bombers thunder by. And it all shines because this is where Nolan lives, in pushing the technical aspects of his productions as priority.

Eye popping and arresting in moments but ultimately a disappointing experience, Dunkirk is as loud and hollow as a Transformers sequel mercifully without the horrendous sexism and product placement. A technical achievement, yes, well and truly… Yet that only makes up half of what you need….

★★1/2

DUNKIRK releases across AUSTRALIA  on 20 JULY, 2017