• 'Dunkirk' (2017)

    In the late spring of 1940, a third of a million Allied soldiers were evacuated from the French harbour of Dunkerque in a little over a week in the face of advancing Axis forces completing their conquest of Europe. Hundreds of private boats assisted the Royal Navy amidst harrying from the air; casualties for the entire withdrawal were high. Hailed as both a disaster and a miracle, the event nevertheless prompted Churchill’s heartening “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, delivered on the final day of the effort. Christopher Nolan’s new film, shot mostly in high-resolution IMAX format and largely eschewing computer-generated imagery in favour of physical reality, seeks to immerse a contemporary audience in the desperation and controlled chaos of those few days. That it fails almost entirely is, perhaps appropriately given the subject matter, a desperate disappointment.

    Initial signs are promising, with an impressive screen-filling flight along deserted streets in the face of gunfire from an unseen enemy. There is little dialogue. We are introduced to an ambitious triple timeline in which events are seen through the eyes of participants in each of the different theatres – the land, the sea and the air – and, crucially, over different periods; respectively one week, one day and one hour. Thus a soldier fleeing that street battle meets a comrade on the beach and together they attempt to board a departing ship; a man, his son and his friend depart from England in their small boat to play their part; and a section of Royal Air Force Spitfires flies to engage the enemy over the French town. Already, the impact of the 15 perf/70mm IMAX film system is clear.

    The difficulty is that problems with every one of these film-making choices are similarly quickly apparent.

    Instead of being thronged with anxious troops, shrouded in smoke and pummelled by incoming fire, the beach is pristine, hosts only a few widely-spread lines of patiently-queuing men (an unlikely proposition even without the knowledge that nearly 8,000 men were taken off in the first day alone) and sits under an empty sky. There is an obvious mismatch in pace between the scenes here and on the boat and those involving fast-moving combat aircraft in flight. Above all, a strange, detached quality pervades everything.

    Linkages between the three storylines do emerge, which sparked a renewal of interest, but unnamed soldiers played by similar-looking actors who repeatedly board, abandon and re-board various vessels rapidly lead to irritation followed by disengagement. The small boat finds itself lost in a sea of emptiness, much like the viewer. Only the aerial sequences retained their grip for me. Their intrinsic excitement, especially during the dogfights and bomber attacks, is enhanced by the visceral power of IMAX, through which the onlooker actually feels each twist and turn in their stomach. The effect is closer to the experience of actually flying than anything seen before in a mainstream medium.

    That overall feeling of listless disengagement, a stilted lack of affect, remains. Recalling Terrence Mallick’s Thin Red Line (1998) and Nolan’s own Interstellar (2014), both of whose mechanical, detached mood failed to connect me to any of their characters, this is the new film’s biggest failing.

    Strangely Nolan even undermines the one positive, by using an optical zoom on the non-IMAX scenes so that their aspect ratio almost matches the ‘tall’ shape of the IMAX format. Since a crucial element of the latter’s impact is the manner in which it fills one’s vertical field of vision, immediately differentiating it from the usual ‘letterbox’ cinema presentation, much of the power of the special format is lost. This zoom also generates an increase in visible grain that is extremely jarring when compared to the flawless IMAX stock. Devaluing the IMAX imagery in this way once more calls into question Nolan’s judgement in this area, despite his well-known championing of the format, after its unnecessary use with the near-monochrome palette of Interstellar.

    Depressingly the air storyline fails in any event, coming down to earth in more ways than one with a particularly egregious final victory that strains credibility to the limit.

    Altogether, I found Dunkirk incredibly unengaging, save for the early parts of the air chapter, visually confusing in the latter stages of the sea story and – ultimately – simply unconvincing in its scale, tone and narrative. What dialogue did occur was either hard to hear or clunkily expository and more suited to onscreen captions. There was no urgency, intimacy or verisimilitude. With two such films now produced, one had to fear for Nolan’s future.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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