Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-US 2017)

Despite Christopher Nolan’s well publicised advocacy of ‘reel’ film and large format production the critical response is something of a lottery. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian did not bother, or forgot, to tell readers in what format he saw the film. Mark Kermode, as one would expect, was more careful, spelling out the formats and advising would-be viewers to pick their venue and screening carefully. The choice is likely also affected by aspect ratios; 70mm IMAX is predominately 1.43:1; digital IMAX is partially in 1.90:1; 70 mm and DCPs are in 2.20:1 though the DCPs will likely screen with not quite black bars at top and bottom; and 35mm prints are in 2.35:1; all in colour.

Given the film was shot on ‘reel’ film 65mmIMAX and 65mm cameras the choice would appear obvious. However, here in West Yorkshire, the choice is limited. A couple of venues are screening digital IMAX; others are using DCPs; so the best option is the Hyde Park Picture House where they are screening a 35mm print. Otherwise you can trek to Manchester and see the film in 70mm IMAX or wait and hope: the Barnsley Parkway  will screen the film on DCP from the 28th and plan to screen a 70mm print when one of the five available in the UK is bookable.

It is not just a film to be seen in a ‘reel’ film format, it is a film to be seen and seen in the cinema. I was impressed, as were other members of the audience. I saw it at the Hyde Park in 35mm; I hope I will get to see a 70mm version.

The film not only looks superb, it has a fine soundtrack and an excellent score by Hans Zimmer: give him his due, he credited Elgar who provides one of the key accompaniments in the film. The music runs through much of the film, though mostly it is a subtle background music, occasionally swelling for dramatic moments.

Christopher Nolan not only directed the film but also wrote the screenplay. It offers his usual preoccupation with ‘time slip’. Essentially the film offers three intertwined stories/experiences of the mythic evacuation. A one-week odyssey by a private soldier caught on the beaches; a one-day sailing journey by as civilian boat which is part of the rescue flotilla; and a one-hour flight by a RAF spitfire pilot offering aid to the 350,000 troops stranded on the beaches.

In what is effectively montage, and eschewing more traditional parallel cutting, the film takes the viewer back and forth between these small-scale stories. At times it does so with great rapidity. Mark Kermode suggested that viewers will clearly find their way through this complex structure. I found it took time for me to identify the strategy and I suspect audiences will take time to crack this as well.

As the relationship between these individual stories falls into place the film produces a real sense of the complexity of the experiences in the ten days of the evacuation. It also enables a climactic moment, as a fine widescreen shot takes us to a the mythic moment in the story, bringing it from the personal to the epic. There are lacunae in the script, but I only noticed those after the film had finished. At 106 minutes in length there is not the space to dot every ‘i’ or tick every ‘t’.

There are also influences apparent from earlier films dramatising this key British disaster-cum-victory. The definitive version has been that produced at Ealing Studio in 1958 (also Dunkirk), in black and white standard widescreen. That film combines moments of action and drama with periods when the beach is quiet, and the listless soldiers watch and wait. This ‘Dunkirk’ has more action but does retain some sense of the passive as opposed to the active  moments. Both films, as also does Atonement (2007), open with soldiers making their way onto the beach to be confronted by the waiting multitudes and the ships vainly trying to take them off the beaches. Visually this ‘Dunkirk’ also shares some aspects of that panorama with the 1997 version. But there is no giant Ferris Wheel to counterpoint the settings in peace and war.

The film has great pace, excellent performances and very fine cinematographic and production work. Whilst Nolan deserves serious praise for this fine film it is also equally due to the craft people who worked with him. Notably this includes the Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema; the Production Design by Nathan Crowley aided by a team of Art Designers; and  the Film Editing by Lee Smith.

The cast are excellent. Most are fresh faces like Fionn Whitehead as Tommy,  Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Barry Keoghan as George. But there are also several familiar faces in key roles: Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, Tom Hardy as  Farrier and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Fulton. These are aided by a fine variety of small characterisations that fill out the picture.

The print that I watched was excellent. At times the image was in soft focus and had a relatively shallow depth of field: I do prefer enough definition to watch deep staging. Presumably these effects were due in part to shooting much of the film in natural light and also because the production opted for actual settings and extremely little CGI. The soundtrack was fine though some of the dialogue was muffled. I expect that this will be less noticeable in IMAX screenings which apparently have higher decibels as well. Note, there are also four different soundtrack formats to choose from: IMAX 6-track, 12 track Digital Sound, Datasat and Dolby digital.

I should mention the trailer in the UK. Modern trailers are frequently edited with pace, so the one for this film (in that fashion) does not really give a sense of how the stories actually work together. It also contains one really corny line of dialogue, played over a series of shots. But this is a misconception: in the actual film, as the troops come home this line is presented with real effect, by a character, in a series of close-ups and mid-shots. And that is where the film leaves us, with one more variation on the recurring line of ‘Lets go home’.

Additional Notes:

I have now seen the 70mmIMAX version at the Printworks in Manchester. This is definitely the way to see the film. I am not a great fan of IMAX but the quality of the image and the immersive screen and soundtrack give the film an epic quality.

I have also read Roy’s comments on the film. I gather he saw it on a 2K DCP. I found the sound quality better on IMAX than  on 35mm and I assume that would also be the case with a DCP. The accompaniment is continuous but much of it does not use musical instruments but organised sound. It is part of the immersive experience. The visual quality, both of IMAX and 70mm [the latter nearly all on the small boat, ‘Moonstone’] is awesome. The colour palette looks fine. There is a lot of blue/grey sky and green/grey sea: perhaps that accounts for Roy’s comment. The colour palette on 2K DCPs does not match 35mm, let alone 70mm. I do remember the tracking shot in Atonement but whilst there are not that many long takes in this film much of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is equally impressive. There are some stunning high-angle shots of the action and the aerial sequences are the best that I have seen since Battle of Britain (1969).

The 1958 film does give a more informed over-view of the event, but [like all the versions that I have seen] it is partial. What it does fail to offer is the epic quality that is apparent in this version. All the film versions rely on familiar/star performers as lead characters. Perhaps a version on the Soviet model or in the manner of Abel Gance’s silent epics would offer a greater mythic presentation.

On the myth I was puzzled by Roy’s comments on ‘Brexit’. Have comments on this been made? The film is not isolationist which is often the case with Hollywood war films. Right at the end Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) stays on to evacuate the French. These are the soldiers we saw at the opening who are defending the perimeter as the troops make their escapes.

The narrative does take time to fall into place but the overlapping time zones come together in an exhilarating manner at the climax. Here the various rescues form a tapestry that dramatises Nolan’s prime focus, survival.

I should add that watching the credits a second time I realised that the variation on Elgar in the film used by Hans Zimmer is by Benjamin Wallfisch after Elgar. The credits also demonstrate the contemporary army of craft people who made this great film possible. This is not strictly ‘auteur’ but large scale film production orchestrated by Christopher Nolan.

And the good news is that Barnsley Parkway are screening the film in 70mm from August 28th until the 31st. So I shall get to see all three ‘reel film’ versions.

 

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