The latest offering from celebrated Hollywood filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is set during the Second World War and, as the name suggests, revolves around the famous Dunkirk evacuation. The operation which lasted over a week paved the way for the rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers, mostly from Belgium, Britain, and France, who were left stranded at Dunkirk, situated in the north of France, with the German army closing in on them. It had proven to be a crushing defeat for Britain and its allies. Evacuation was a more strategic option than surrender at the time, for it ensured that the defeated Allied forces lived to fight another day. Dunkirk's ensemble cast is a mix of Nolan regulars such as Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy and thespians like Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance.
For a film dealing with hope and survival, it is cold, hollow and completely devoid of emotions.
Unfortunately, Dunkirk is by far the weakest film that Christopher Nolan has made. For a film dealing with hope and survival, it is cold, hollow and completely devoid of emotions. Here is a film that looks like a video game playing in the demo mode. It is a result of a wafer thin plot that's further marred by a lack of character development.
Now, some of the reviews of Dunkirk available on the internet don't really come across as reviews; they sound more like eulogies. And that's what amazes me. The only consolation is that everything you see is actually captured by a motion picture camera without any computer-generated graphics. However, I don't mind the use of computer-generated graphics as long as the technology can make movies more engaging. Dunkirk could have been a far better film had Nolan condescended to consciously study timeless thrillers like The Wages of Fear or his own early films beforehand.
Speaking of Dunkirk, there are supposed to be 300,000 men on the beach and yet we can't really sense their presence. Sergei Eisenstein's created a bigger event in Battleship Potemkin's Odessa Steps sequence with a fraction of the resources that are as Nolan's disposal. Also, the war scenes in his Ivan the Terrible look far grander. We can compare the two filmmakers because Nolan is a big advocate for shooting on film and is averse to the use of computer-generated graphics unless absolutely necessary. Also, one of Nolan's greatest inspirations, Stanley Kubrick, created much greater stir with far less resources in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. Steven Spielberg with nearabout the same resources as Nolan created an epic war film that's at least ten times better than Dunkirk—Saving Private Ryan.
There are supposed to be 300,000 men on the beach and yet we can't really sense their presence... We neither see those men nor feel the panic at large.
Now some people would say in Nolan's defence that Dunkirk isn't a war movie, but even if we buy that, Nolan's film fails to do justice to the enormous scale of the Dunkirk evacuation which Winston Churchill described as a "miracle of deliverance." We neither see those men nor feel the panic at large. Even the rescue by small boats at the end looks rather unimpressive for a movie that claims to provide an immersive experience of the iconic event. Also, Nolan has some gifted actors at his disposal but he fails to use them to his advantage. A filmmaker of Nolan's stature just cannot be excused for such glaring shortcomings.
Whatever there's to appreciate about Dunkirk is mostly because of the efforts to two men: Hans Zimmer and Hoyte van Hoytema. It is impossible to imagine the film without the brilliant show that these two masters put up. Zimmer's background score is of course the soul of the film. It is impossible to imagine any Nolan film without a Zimmer score and, in particular, Dunkirk. Also, it wouldn't be wrong to consider Hoytema as a co-author of Dunkirk, along with Nolan and Zimmer. Undoubtedly, it is his breathtaking cinematography that allows Nolan to realise his vision.
Alas, as the captain of the ship, Nolan certainly lets everybody down with his whimsical filmmaking decisions! He believes in giving his viewers an immersive cinematic experience, but baulks from leveraging computer-generated imagery to create the illusion of a large army (when he can depend upon the same for several sequences of Interstellar. If a less accomplished filmmaker like S.S. Rajamouli can stir up our emotions with far better conviction (Baahubali and Baahubali 2 are great examples) through the use of computer-generated imagery then it is certainly Nolan's loss to remain so stubborn in an age driven by technology.
A version of this review was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.