I’ve been looking forward to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk for as long as I can remember.
So much so that when I found myself in London in the lead up to the film’s release, I was delighted to discover he had programmed ten films that have influenced his latest effort to play at the BFI just minutes from my hotel.
Running throughout July he programmed the following films…
Greed (1924), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927),
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Foreign Correspondent (1940)
The Wages of Fear (1953), The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Alien (1979)
Chariots of Fire (1981), Speed (1994), Unstoppable (2010)
I was able to catch two of these films at the BFI – Sunrise and Algiers, and watched a further four – All Quiet, Foreign Correspondent, Speed and Unstoppable on my laptop over the course of my travels.
On my return to Sydney I was jetlagged but intent on watching Dunkirk as soon as I could.
I caught the latest Apes flick first up, then watched Dunkirk in VMAX – a large screen format with Dolby Atmos that I thought would deliver the ultimate experience on the first day of it’s release.
It is hard for anything in life to deliver on it’s expectations and I fear I built this film up too much as I found it grim, bleak, and not overly enjoyable.
The film focuses on three aspects of the mass evacuation of soldiers from the French coast.
Firstly a young soldier attempting to leave the beach over the course of a week. HE stands little chance of evacuation as by the time he reached the beach there are literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers ahead of him.
Secondly an Englishman (Mark Rylance) who decides to captain his own boat in a rescue attempt just before the Navy can acquire it. Joined by two young men he sets out across the channel and we follow him over the course of a day.
Lastly a pilot (Tom Hardy) on a mission for an hour as he provides cover for allied ships and engages in dogfights with the enemy.
The biggest hurdle for me was the poor picture format I ended up watching. First of all the picture did not fit the screen, with Nolan reportedly insistent on only delivering in 70mm format.
This was definitely not an optimal format for the large screen that I was sat in front of, (VMAX in Dolby Atmos) and the fact that the film is actually playing in 70mm in an adjoining cinema has not been widely promoted. I may go to see it again, the one drawback being uncomfortable chairs.
And the bigger drawback being the fact that I did not enjoy the film anywhere near as much as I had hoped to, or as much as 90% of audiences.
Nolan has employed a soundtrack that seems to borrow from Sicario, a building throbbing drone that implies dread, and never lets up. Mixed in with this is the ticking of a watch.
The three story elements did not overlap in a conventional way, although they did have some crossover.
I could not discern a narrative thread. There is no humour at all. There is little action apart from some aerial warfare and some artillery shelling.
Nolan’s whole aim seemed to be to show the seriousness of the plight of the soldiers and the nation, as hundreds of thousands of soldiers stood stranded unable to get back to England.
It is an incredible true story that has not been told in great detail before onscreen.
The 1958 version of Dunkirk is a more traditional film that follows the trials of a group of soldiers as they attempt to reach the coast and several Englishmen back home who deliberate over whether or not to set sail with the aim of rescuing their stranded countrymen.
This Nolan version is an odd affair that plays like a side project to the hugely successful films he has written with his brother Jonathon.
Inception is Nolan’s most recent solo work as writer and director and while it could be described as bleak and grim it is a spellbinding film.
Dunkirk for me is a frustrating outcome for a long build-up in anticipation and I’ll have to wait for his next one.
3 & 1/2 Stars – “Bleak & Grim”