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Dunkirk, film review: ‘Dramatic, tense, a quintessential British war film’

PUBLISHED: 18:30 18 July 2017

Dunkirk. Picture: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros

Dunkirk. Picture: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros

© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC

FIVE STARS for Dunkirk, which stars Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Jack Lowden and Aneurin Barnard

Dunkirk. Picture: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner BrosDunkirk. Picture: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros

If there’s one thing British cinema can do it is a war film.

Dunkirk may be the quintessential British war film in that it is primarily concerned with overcast skies, a miserable time at the beach and endless queuing. It may also be the ultimate summer blockbuster – a relentlessly tense, dramatic situation conveyed almost entirely by sound and fury.

I try to avoid trailers as much as possible – they are promises made to be broken – but I caught a brief clip for this back in January, the image of a pen filled with helmeted heads, all turning and then cowering at the sound of an approaching enemy plane.

That single image put across perfectly everything that the film could be, and half a year later here is a film that has kept that promise. The images are precise and Hans Zimmer’s score pushes the film, which has very little dialogue, forward.

It is a phenomenal technical achievement, one which probably really does need to be seen in the IMAX format to be fully appreciated. Some viewers though will object, and in the same terms they object to most Hollywood blockbusters: it’s all action, it’s too noisy, there’s no story and the characters aren’t strong enough.

I can certainly see why people might see it as a closed, perhaps pinched experience. Such is the technical proficiency and the completeness of its vision, it doesn’t really leave much for audiences.

In Saving Private Ryan, the obvious reference point, Spielberg employed a concertina narrative, squeezing audiences with intense action sequences and then offering up a period of recuperation. In Dunkirk, we are asked to hold our breath for an hour and half, suspended on tenterhooks, wondering who will survive the arbitrary meat grinder of the evacuation.

In Dunkirk, the form is a perfect expression of the subject. The evacuation was an undignified, even squalid, scramble for survival, filled both with rank cowardice and great heroism. Nolan’s vision mirrors that exactly, an honest telling of a defeat turned victory only by context.

Rating: 5/5 stars

halfmanhalfcritic.com for longer reviews

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