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Film review: Dunkirk

MANILA, Philippines – Christopher Nolan makes entertaining films like the three Dark Knight movies. However, he has this preoccupation with time. He likes to play with it. He loops time, compresses it, extends it, sends it out on another track, duplicates it, reverses it, etc. etc. This sometimes makes his work difficult to enjoy. Not difficult to watch as he always comes up with compelling plots and images. Just to enjoy or at the least to digest. Like I am fine with Memento, which I enjoyed but I can use another seating with Inception to fully grasp what Nolan was doing there with time.

Nolan had time on two trajectories in his Interstellar where the present met up with a slowly expended future. Or was it vice-versa? He goes even further than that with his latest, Dunkirk. This time around, he is juggling three time frames. First, there is one week on the beach in Northern France. Then one day on the water washing up that beach. And then one hour in the air over that same beach. Nolan being the cinema genius he is now turning out to be sews up this package nicely and very neatly too. In he end, the viewers learn that what he had in mind all along was an escape film and they had been taken along for the thrilling ride.

Dunkirk tells of the evacuation of 400,000 allied troops cornered on the beach by the Nazi invasion on May 26 to June 4, 1940. The troops were in retreat and that was considered a monumental defeat for the British. The enemy was behind the soldiers and closing in, also above, sniping at them from Luftwaffe planes. In front of them was freedom through a shallow beach that only allows small vessels through. Getting as many of those men as possible into boats and then into the big ships without being hit by enemy fire is what Dunkirk is about.

Sounds simple. But not when you have Nolan as writer, director and producer. He is not only on a vicious non-linear kick again. The fact is he bucks several rules considered essential to conventional cinema. No character development, no backstories and very little dialogue. We start the picture not knowing anything about the soldiers and leave with still nothing in the end. Those soldiers are just there like insects and Nolan will tell us if they will be rescued or not.

With director Christopher Nolan

There are enemies but no villains in sight. In fact, the word Nazi is not even mentioned throughout. They are unseen but felt. They are represented by a bullet here and there or at most by the two shadowy figures seen by the light of a burning Spitfire plane as they lead the captured pilot away. Death aplenty is also there but in a matter of fact way. It is war. It happens. Like a soldier walking out into the water, backpack and all and disappearing or in tin helmets littering the sand, all their wearers gone.

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Everything in Dunkirk is of the moment. The film takes us and puts us right in the middle of battle. It is a breathless, visceral experience, being on the beach waiting for the rescue, on a little wooden boat wanting to rescue and on a cockpit being strafed and looking out for snipers during the rescue. And everywhere, a sense of fear and desperation, strong and palpable. But then here and there in little corners, a glimpse of hope in the quiet strength and resilience of the men who turned Dunkirk into England’s finest hour and Hitler’s biggest mistake.

See, I checked up on England’s World War II history. If you think Nolan provides a background to the Dunkirk tale, you have another think coming. But it does not really matter. What he has created is the most immersive, all-encompassing film experience ever. And shot in IMAX and 65 millimeter, it is all real and large and without CGI. Nolan has changed the rules and it would be interesting to find out how his success with this intriguing approach to telling a story will factor on future works. By him and others.

Nolan had a lot of help, most notably from his director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, who came up with pictures of extraordinary impact and awesome beauty and from composer Hans Zimmer, whose music, rooted in the tick-tock rhythm of a clock, is a throb with heart-stopping tension. Editor Lee Smith and production designer Nathan Crowley also turned in superb work. Watch out for the nominations, Dunkirk has opened the awards season.

Oh, and before l forget there are actors, too. But do not look out for big names. The most recognizable ones are Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer, Mark Rylance as the owner of the wooden boat and Tom Hardy as the pilot. The others are wonderful young actors in their first major screen roles who all turned in competent performances. Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and there is also One Direction Harry Styles. No lingering close-up for him, too. In fact I had to make sure not to miss out seeing him among the other soldiers. How nice to find him taking his acting duties seriously. Made me admire the kid more.

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