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Dunkirk – Nolan’s War Epic is enthralling and his best ever


by Harshit Verma

The grittiest World War II event – the rescue at Dunkirk

TLR Rating: 9 Reels.

The Premise

Before entering the theater, I knew for sure Nolan will deliver as he has in the past decade. But he did something more this time. For a long time, this prodigy had an image of mainstream blockbuster director. However, ‘Dunkirk’ is in no way a ‘just an entertainer‘. It really makes you feel what the soldiers went through in this horrifying, yet overlooked event of World War II. Shot in IMAX, this visually fascinating and emotionally crushing movie will not disappoint you in any sense. It doesn’t matter if you are a regular movie goer or a cine-phile. ‘Dunkirk‘ is a sprawling war epic, but opens intimately.

The helplessness etched out on Commander Bolton’s face says it all. ‘Home’ is near, yet so far.

The Plot

A group of British soldiers wander down a street in the town for which the movie is named, as leaflets flutter down all around them. A soldier picks up the flyer showing a map of the coast of France, a white circle surrounded by red. In the center of the circle is the word “You.”

The red is the combined might of the Nazi military machine. Immediately after that somewhat harrowing revelation, the soldier (Tommy as he’s named in the credits, though never in the movie, played by Fionn Whitehead) catches a few of the leaflets and jams them into his pocket, preparing to use them for toilet paper – and the scene explodes with gunfire, as hidden German soldiers open up on the men. Seconds later, Tommy, the lone survivor of his group, manages to make it to the beach – where he finds lines of thousands of Allied troops, waiting for ships to appear to take them across the English Channel. As Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) notes, they can almost see HOME from where they stand.

The Mole, the Line and the wait for Home.

The Setting

Director Christopher Nolan revels in scenes like this throughout ‘Dunkirk’, where small moments open up into huge, heart-pounding action sequences. The enemy soldiers are never named, and appear on screen only in the distance and only twice throughout the movie. They’re more like a force of nature. Planes strafe the beach, dropping bombs. The stoic British troops take cover, but then line back up when the danger has passed. There’s nothing to do but wait, and hope. The historical story of the Battle of Dunkirk, taking place in May 1940, is one of a daring rescue of Allied forces. For the men on the ground, survival is the only mandate. ‘Dunkirk’ differentiates itself from most war movies, drilling into the kind of moments that seem extremely real, if unbecoming.

When Death flies above….

The Men

Tommy and another unnamed soldier (Damien Bonnard), come together as they attempt to weasel onto one ship by carrying up an injured man on a stretcher, never exchanging a word as they execute the plan. The pair hope only to escape the doom of the beach. Yet, continually, they help each other, and save one another and others. They’re equally cowardly and selfish,  selfless and brave. In the face of the death coming for them, be it in the rolling oceans, from unseen U-Boats and their torpedoes, or from encroaching soldiers, none of those human traits are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Dawson, with his son Peter and his friend George, go on a solo rescue mission to the shores of Dunkirk. The bravery and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the soldiers is a laudable act of heroism.

The pilots Farrier and Collins alter the definition of heroism. Farrier in particular is a symbol of determination and hope. He dances across the skies, taking down a number of enemy planes, and almost single-handedly thwarted the attempts to sink the rescue ships. Despite his fuel running out, he is the last line of defense for the Allies. He fights on till the time his fuel and momentum gives off. But he never abandons his post, choosing instead to be captured by the enemies.

…and moments later

The Narration

Director Christopher Nolan revels in small moments that open up into huge, heart-pounding action sequences throughout ‘Dunkirk’. At the same time, ‘Dunkirk’ tells two other stories that run in parallel.

The story of the men on the beach, known as the Mole, takes place over the course of a week.

Setting off from England are Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and teenage friend George (Barry Keoghan) in another story.  That tale encompasses a day.

 In the last story takes place in the air as two Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), make for Dunkirk over the course of an hour, dog-fighting with enemy planes to provide ships and men with what air support they can.

Nolan cuts all three stories together with minimal dialogue. And it’s a testament to the power of the movie that so little can be said and yet so much is conveyed. Each portion of the script boils the large-scale tale of 400,000 men in need of rescue to a few tight moments and perspectives. Yet constantly ‘Dunkirk’ captures desperation and fear, with tension building, subsiding and building again.

The mixing of the three stories together is where Nolan does his customary twisting of the audience’s temporal perspective, his favorite well-worn trick. We see events in Farrier’s story that haven’t happened yet in George, Peter and Mr. Dawson’s. And we get the aftermath of events on the sea before they transpire on land.

Mark Rylance and Cilian Murphy stood strong in their roles. Raw Emotion, Fear and Determination were emoted eloquently.

The Style

The juxtaposition mostly favors the building of tension and the passing from one action scene to another and ‘Dunkirk’ purposely never lets up. So the audience is unable to relax, much like the characters. But it also adds complication to the story. It’s doesn’t make the story difficult to follow, like ‘Inception‘ or ‘Interstellar‘, but does tear you out of the tension, forcing you to reconcile what you’re seeing with the chronological flow of events. Before you can think about it too much, ‘Dunkirk’ arrests with its gorgeous shots and its tight, textured look at how people respond to extraordinary events, and what those events make of them. Characters frantically escape one bad situation, only to land in a worse one, as fate and the enemy tear safety away and death beats closer, like the incoming tide.

The Music

All through Hans Zimmer’s score is the sound of a ticking clock, a powerful on-the-nose reminder that the danger is unrelenting. ‘Dunkirk’s strongest element is TIME. He is a genius, and this might be his best work yet. The music fits in seamlessly with the story. You can’t imagine ‘Dunkirk’ without the score.

Spellbinding shots defined the movie.

The Thoughts

There are no good guys or bad guys in ‘Dunkirk’. People are caught up in an incredible situation, making decisions and fighting to stay alive. It’s a testament to the power of the movie that so little can be said and yet so much is conveyed. Though Nolan sometimes forces more complexity on ‘Dunkirk’ than it requires, it’s the movie’s simplicity that makes it work which seems counter-intuitive for a big-budget action war movie.

Harry Styles finally did something worthwhile. Welcome to the real world.

The Take

 Lingering shots on silent men as they grapple with what they have to do to live, and what they can live with, make ‘Dunkirk’ feel incredibly human. It’s amazing that Nolan, known for big interlocking ideas that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, allows so much of the movie to breathe without being weighed down. Instead, ‘Dunkirk’ captures an uncanny and extraordinary moment and forces the audience to live in it. It’s a movie filled with actors who know enough to play down their performances and a script that knows enough to keep its mouth shut. ‘Dunkirk’ pounds away at you like bombs pummeling the beach, and in settling in those powerful moments, it manages to be more real and affecting than films with bigger characters sporting reams of words to say.

The author is a huge movie buff with special interest in neo-noir and sci-fi genres. When he gets tired of watching movies, he watches more of them.

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