23 Jul 2017

Dunkirk: Restrained, Throbbing War Movie

A Christopher Nolan movie you can fully understand at first viewing. Boy!Is that a relief!

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan's most life-relatable film. After all, just how much psychic bend can Nolan do with true World War II events? Wait for it.

While I love Memento (2000) for its masterly nonlinear mind-bombing and the darker, rocking  Batman trilogy, Nolan's Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) were boggling and unforgivingly incoherent in their final take. Yes, keeping box office takings and popular opinion aside. So when the shroud-white-over-black-background Dunkirk film title appeared, I wished only for an easily understandable film.

The State of Affairs at Dunkirk 
It's 1940 and Germany is all over World War II. They have conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway and are weeks away from taking over France. The English, French, Belgian and Canadian Allied Forces now find themselves cornered by advancing German troops, U boats and deadly air strikes at the seaside French town of Dunkirk. Over 4 lakh soldiers face certain death, with British shores agonisingly visible to them from the shore.

Non-Linear Storytelling Virtues 
Nolan skillfully refrains from an epic, heavy, marathon take. He instead goes where most Hollywood war movies don't. A big budget military retreat movie. No gory blood, no bullet-ridden bodies, no epic battles or heroic, sentimental stuff.Undoubtedly, a standout, box-office endangering premise.

The director delves into moments, despair, defeat, death and unlikely saviours. He harks on man's basic instinct to live. Not blood-drowned killing on screen, just the primitive instinct of running when you are hunted. The universal truth conveyed here - in victory or defeat, it is damn good to be breathing and that is always enough.

Comfortingly, the nonlinear narrative results in clear multiple perspectives and heart-stopping suspense. After a held-back first hour, Nolan's reveals his unseen strands by going back-forth and delivers a heart-rending second act.

Taut Screenplay, Sparse Dialogues 
Dunkirk's writing (Nolan again) hinges on less-spoken moments, firing the story in three distinct threads, selective events unfolding on land, sea and air. He picks individuals to make the experience personal, and through their eyes, the gravity of the situation sinks in deep. When a soldier swims between two aflame, sinking ships, you share his panic. We understand that long conversations would not have occurred in such a hopeless scenario.

That Germans are unseen all through the film makes it ultra-spooky. Like the soldiers, I didn't know where the bullets, torpedos and bombs were raining from. This screenplay gamble works big time for Dunkirk.

Nervy Background Score
Hans Zimmer picks up the nerve-rattling violin from the Joker's theme in The Dark Knight and adds layers of tension and edge. The simple tick-tock of a pocket watch conveys the alarming truth - time is running out. Another classy, nervy background score from the Zimmer-Nolan combo.

Great Cast Connects in Silences  
Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard simmer as the fleeing soldiers. Harry Styles is a surprise as a British Army Private.Mark Rylance gets another meaty role as a rescuing mariner. Tom Hardy dazzles as an RAF pilot, though we largely get only his eyes, muffled voice and plane manoeuvring hands. Everything seems real and up close, thanks to Nolan's rejection of CGI and Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography.

Weak Points
When the film delves into dialogue, the spell breaks a little. Trivia on fighter plane engines and talk of young men dying to old men's orders is tad routine stuff. But this is a minor niggle.

Don't Miss It   
I can't wait to catch Dunkirk again at the theatres. There is so much to read in a second viewing, and comprehension is not a factor, thankfully. A master is at work and in a superbly trimmed 106 minutes, Dunkirk is a modern war movie classic in the making.

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