Dunkirk – an absolute masterpiece of cinema
Dunkirk, the most anticipated film of the summer, seems to be something of a marmite film for the critics. But we’re going to lay our cards on the table and say that it is one of the finest films made in the last decade.
It seems that this film either grabs you, or it doesn’t. Criticism levelled at it seems to commonly be;
- Lack of character backstory
- No Germans
- No Indians
- Poor representation of the French
- Lack of scale – why not show the full scale of the operation, all 400k men.
Well fair enough but, as I see it;
- Backstory is irrelevant. This is not a film which follows the standard format of build a character the audience identifies with, create an inciting incident, have the characters overcome a problem and wrap it all up nicely. Nolan seems to want to totally immerse you in the situation, or rather three situations, which ask you to examine how you would react in those situations. What would you do to survive? How much moral courage do you possess? So, simply, you just don’t need to know anything about the characters, what their history is or where they are from. In fact, it is critical to the film that you don’t know where they are from in some cases.
- No Germans. If Germans were present than you’d be seeing the characters uniting against a common enemy. Whereas having them as an existential force which drives the tension of the film means that the conflict is shown between the people on the same side, with each other and with their own values, in the face of the situation.
- No Indians. OK, so there were no representatives of the Indian logistics regiments at Dunkirk. But the Engineers only got one reference and the Grenadiers one appearance made them look like dicks, so in the great panoply of such an event, ticking boxes to cover full representation probably wasn’t that important to the story. I don’t have much in common with Harry Styles but that doesn’t stop me relating to his character’s dilemma.
- Poor representation of the French. What, apart from forming a heroic rearguard to allow the Brits to evacuate first?
- Lack of scale. Well yes, it would have been good to turn to CGI a few times to give a more accurate idea of the vast numbers of men on that Dunkirk beach. Imagine all the people in the Millennium Stadium for a sell out 6 nations game, and multiply that by 4.5 to get an idea. But Nolan is high priest of realism. It’s what made his Dark Knight Trilogy so seminal. He makes fantasy subjects seem real. And the result is that he doesn’t like going down the CGI route very much. So lack of a dramatic establishing shot is the price we pay for Nolan. Worth it.
Work of Genius
To me, this is the best film of the last decade, or some other arbitrary time period. Everything he does is engineered totally to bring you to an immersive experience. Virtual Reality without the googles I think I’ve seen it described. It is one of these films which you; a.) need to see in a cinema; and b.) probably benefit from seeing a few times.
I didn’t come out of the cinema feeling pumped up as I would had I watched a traditional action movie. I came out with a very profound sense of the experience of those in that conflict. There were several elements which contributed to this being a masterpiece, largely helped by Nolan assembling his A-Team of colleagues, starting with Hans Zimmer.
Zimmer is the kind of guy you turn to when you want a tub-thumping, fired up action movie theme. Think Crimson Tide, Broken Arrow, The Rock, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbour, Tears of the Sun, Gladiator and, of course, The Lion King.
So his music traditionally features a hero motif. Think of Gladiator and you think of Russell Crowe giving Joaquim Phoenix a piece of his mind to a soundtrack of soaring vocal melodies which get you ready to wrestle a tiger right where you sit, in Row F of Screen 3 at the Doncaster Odeon.
Yet in this film he completely avoids that, at Nolan’s instruction. Don’t emote, Nolan told him, because the subject is emotive enough. Put the audience under pressure, ramp up the tension. That was his mandate and boy did he fulfil it. Key to this, and actually key to the entire concept of the film’s structure, is a piece of auditory slight of hand called the Shepard Tone. Nope, I hadn’t heard of it either until Nolan got his hands on it. It’s a loop where three separate tracks are played, each increasing in pitch but changing volume to emphasise one over another. It’s been better described as an audio barber shop pole, always seeming to rise but going nowhere. So the effect is that the music has this constant, tension ramping effect, which he brings to great effect in this soundtrack (the most quoted example of the Shepard Tone is the sound design for the batbike in the Dark Knight movies).
For the emotive part there is a wonderful weaving in, but not outright sampling of, Elgar’s Nimrod Variations. If you have any connection to the military, this piece of music is hugely powerful and Zimmer draws notes from it right through the film, culminating in a swell of the main theme right at the key moment. If the hairs on your neck aren’t standing on end at this point, you’ve clearly been shaved.
Nolan’s wunderkind here is Hoyte van Hoytema. When I was watching the film, I was struck by how beautiful the cinematography was. Key to his work, and why I love it so, is that it is shot on film. In my editing for weddings I shoot digital and convert to film profile, whereas Nolan shoots on a range of film and scans to digital (though he does arrange screenings for film). It felt almost like documentary footage with, unlike in Saving Private Ryan and it’s contrasty colour profile, an almost desaturated look. Hoytema exposes the subject to the same degree as the background, making it closer to how our eyes would see the scene. Watch this excellent video for an overview of his style. But he gets the best out of the settings he is working in;
- The beach scenes use wide angles and compositions to emphasis the bleak, open space they are in and how vulnerable the waiting solders are to attack by Stukas but more so the elements. It’s a bleak, cold place to be waiting about in sodden, woollen battledress and you totally get that sense.
- The dogfights are intense and switch between the vast skies and narrow vision of the cockpit. It makes for something simultaneously beautiful and intense.
- The little boat captained by Mark Rylance is, from memory, mostly shot from within the boat, especially as they move closer to the action. This really helps to make you feel how small and fragile it was, how cramped it would be. (I’ve since listened to an interview with Cillian Murphy where he says that it was literally just the actors, Nolan, Hoytema and a sound guy on the boat, out at sea.)
It was only when I started looking into his work that I realised he is responsible for some of my favourite cinematography or recent years, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being a key example.
I’ve seen him given credit for the clever use of fixed cameras in the ship interiors to help convey the desperate situation facing men in a flooding hull, but actually that didn’t seem all that novel to me. In fact I’m pretty sure I saw the same technique in an old TV programme about people practicing underwater evacuations drills from helicopters back in the 90’s.
What makes him a master for me is that his work was so closely connected to the atmosphere he was trying to portray. The beaches were bleak and made you shiver at their windswept vastness. The dogfights were intense and seen through a macro pilots view but opened up to glorious wide shots which gave a sense of the air which these spitfire pilots commanded. The boat scenes felt intimate and vulnerable, but still quite domestic. He is a man who finds beauty in the bleak and majesty in the mundane.
If Richard King doesn’t win an Oscar for sound design then the whole system is null and void and we can all pack up and go home. From the dog fights to the atmospheric sound to the Stukas to the screams to the heartbeat rhythm of boots running brought into the music, it’s a masterpiece. Nolan doesn’t go big on special effects, so a quick pan on a line of bullet holes and some good sound design and you have Tom Hardy being strafed. I’m not entirely sure if it was that simple but its an example I can imagine as plausible. The point is that half of that film is our mind putting context to sound. The sound is as important a cast members as anyone (as always). In Dunkirk, Nolan’s pursuit of realism actually meant strapping microphones to the spitfire engines and driving them around in dogfight manoeuvres. Read more about the incredible sound design in this extended interview with King.
Personally my favourite piece of powerful sound was the noise of the opening salvos of gunfire in the streets of Dunkirk. It sounded real. It quite possibly was. That was how the sound was so powerful in the famous contact drills scene in Heat – they just recorded it live, no foley needed. In following a rabbit hole down into Heat trivia, I’ve since discovered that Heat is one of Nolan’s favourite films.
It would be a bit hammy of someone to say “this is the theme of our film and we’ll make damn sure people know about it”. In any other context, perhaps the theme would seem to forced. Indeed, there is little doubt, as it gets explicitly stated in close up on a main character. HOME.
Yet, there is no harm in stating that, because it is the one burning desire for all men on that beach. To reach home.
- As mentioned, Ken Branagh’s character notes how close they are to home.
- One of our three main protagonists, when asked if he would be noble and volunteer to leave the ship in favour of someone else refuses, on the basis that he’ll live with his morally dubious decision because getting home is more important.
- A man strips off his kit and walks into the sea; get home or die in the attempt (rather obviously the latter).
- The character for home Britain isn’t home, doesn’t get there, one of the few key casualties.
- The young boy who needlessly volunteers on Mark Rylance’s ship, expresses his one desire is to do something which people take note of at home. Cue obituary.
- If anything, Mark Rylance’s boat is his home, and he won’t leave it to some Navy minders.
- Tom Hardy sacrifices his chance to get home, in order that others might. (Don’t worry folks, he lives. All the characters you care about do. No GoT butchery here.)
- Any more?
I like this emphasis on such a clear theme (of course I could be talking bollocks and his theme was intended to be spaniels and love thereof) in a story where there is nothing in anyones mind but to get these men off that beach and back home. Nothing else can enter into the equation. Get the army home and live to fight against the anticipated invasion.
Conducting the Orchestra
Nolan does well because he employs brilliant craftsmen. So a good budget and impressive CVs make this film great? Well, yes, but not only that. Nolan has assembled a team of people who fit his vision and whose skills compliment each other. Being a director is a funny role, because you aren’t controlling any one aspect of the job. Actors make decisions about their character, cinematographers decide composition and lighting, composers decide orchestration. Yet he will have a role in every one of these decision making processes, imparting his vision but trusting the experts he employs to deliver at a level beyond his expectations.
In Dunkirk, Nolan wove all those delicate skill strands together in a fabric of exquisite quality. It wasn’t an A-Team of superstars, it was a company of fellow artisans. And they definitely deliver beyond expectation, or rather outwith our expectations. They give us something we weren’t perhaps expecting. Something we haven’t quite ever seen before. This was art.
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If not, no worries, close down this blog and head to the cinema while you still can to see Dunkirk on a scale it deserves.