By Amrit (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India)

 

It has been strange to see Dunkirk being hailed as the best war film of all time, when director Christopher Nolan himself has not even categorised the film as such. In an interview, Nolan was quoted as saying, “Dunkirk is not a war film. It’s a survival story and first and foremost a suspense film.”

In Dunkirk, we are presented with what have become staples in a Nolan film. A non-linear story line, an elaborate cast and several ‘layers’ of stories. Nolan had utilized these same techniques earlier, but the two films which can be compared here are Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014). In the former, we saw Nolan at his best, presenting a complex narrative smartly. However, the outcome was less impressive in Interstellar, which was notable for visual brilliance, but had several plot holes. In his third attempt however, the results are utterly disastrous.

In Dunkirk, Nolan presents the narrative in three threads. The first, on the Dunkirk beach, is The Mole, which supposedly lasts for a week, but it is my belief that it doesn’t last for more than two complete days. The second, on sea, which lasts for a day and the third, on air, which is for an hour. All three are interwoven to form an unnecessarily confusing narrative.

On land, the cornered British forces are easy pickings for the German Luftwaffe. It is here that we come across Tommy (Whitehead), Gibson (Barnard) and Alex (Styles), who are desperate to go home. The shallow beach makes it impossible for large vessels to evacuate the soldiers, and smaller ships are being used to ferry them. But even in the sea, these vessels are easy pickings for the U-boats. The Navy has commissioned civilian boats and yachts to travel to Dunkirk, which is only a few miles away, among which Mr. Dawson (Rylance) is one. Fearing invasion, the British government is sparse in using the air force, and send out only few aircraft. It is here that we see some of the best scenes in the movie, where the intense dogfighting between the RAF pilots (Hardy and Lowden) put us right inside the cockpit.

Nolan keeps cutting across these three narratives, jumping time and space in a style that was exhilarating in Inception, but muddled now. If presented as three different narratives converging upon each other, then it would have made for an interesting story. But the editing is so haphazard and inconsistent that there is no flow to the movie. Each time, the audience is left trying to figure out the chronology. Nolan fanboys will point to this as evidence that the viewer is not smart enough, but I would like to flip it around and say that it’s actually the editing that is not smart. There is no logical explanation for the non-linear screenplay, apart from the fact that it is Nolan who has written the story. It takes away from the plot.

Because, in Nolan’s own words, this is a suspense film, it comes laden with the clichés of this genre. There is much manufactured tension and drama, most notably when a pilot crash lands in the water and can’t escape. Later on, when Tom Hardy’s landing gear doesn’t work properly, you can’t help but feel that the drama has been manufactured as well. Only during the establishing shots on the beach and the dogfights does the drama feel natural and intense.

The decision to cast Harry Styles is perplexing as well. While his acting skills are by no means atrocious, they are not satisfactory either. It is even more startling that he plays the one character tasked with displaying overt emotion in a scene where one of the characters is accused of being a German spy. Here, it is obvious that Styles is out of his depth, though he does a passable job throughout the rest of the movie.

Nolan has been vehement in his refusal to utilize CGI. In his previous movies, his innovative use of camera and sets have allowed him to pull of stunning zero gravity scenes without using any CGI. However, his adamant nature is now just proving silly. There were over 800 civilian boats that arrived at Dunkirk. While it is understandable that Nolan doesn’t want his primary action to be generated by computers, there is no harm in enhancing finer details like these. The true scale of the number of boats that arrived in France is not revealed to the viewers. CGI could’ve helped portray this spectacle in all it’s might.

Like most Nolan films, Dunkirk warrants repeated watching. In his earlier showings, it was because you wanted to understand the complexities or the finer details of the plot. Now, it is because of the muddled plot and narrative.

Hans Zimmer, a Nolan regular, turns in a disappointing score as well. He seems to have phoned this one in completely. Once again, the tension the score creates feels very manufactured. When Tommy and Gibson are ferrying an injured soldier to a departing boat, the score is almost cringe-worthy. I have a feeling that using someone like Trent Reznor to deliver the score would’ve been much more suitable.

Overall, good acting (a special mention to Cillian Murphy) and a few intense scenes redeem what would otherwise have been a thoroughly disappointing film, but not enough to make it an engaging watch.

(SPOILER ALERT) One picky gripe I have with the movie is that while it is stated at the beginning that the story on the mole spans over a week, it doesn’t seem to hold up. On day one, we see Tommy, Gibson and Alex getting on to a departing boat that is sunk by a torpedo. They make their way back to the beach and wake up the next morning. They then join a group of Scots and lie in wait inside a trawler, waiting for the tide to float it. The events of this day see them finally board Mr. Dawson’s boat and travel back to Britain. On the same day, the entire beach is supposedly evacuated, as witnessed when Hardy’s plane glides across it. The next morning, the officers are the last ones to leave the beach, which means that the narrative lasts only for three days and two nights. Correct me if I’m wrong on this one. Maybe the scene with the officers is a few days later?

Rating: 3/5

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