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Review: Dunkirk

Roslyn Hull

The evacuation of British soldiers from Belgium as the German army surrounds them.

I do not believe I have ever seen a quieter war film.

I don’t mean physically quiet – there are plenty of explosions, weapons fired and general chaos – I mean dialogue and, despite the huge numbers involved, I mean scope too.

The ‘traditional’ war film is rightly filled with suffering and the confusion of combat. However, this is usually told with buckets of blood, severed limbs and in-your-face anguish. Whether it covers just one battle or a whole campaign, a war film also typically shows the audience a huge scale event, adding to the tragedy of what is happening by multiplying and multiplying it.

Think the landing in Normandy in either Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day.

The strength, the beauty of Christopher Nolan’s film is that he tells just three stories – one from each arena of the retreat – air, land and sea. He doesn’t involve historical figures, posturing generals or even heroic soldiers to tell this story. He uses anonymous, inexperienced and frightened boys and he takes us with them so effectively I could not help but be moved.

We see the inconceivable numbers of soldiers on the beach a few times but it is not dwelled on nor is that number the core of the story. By giving us small but terrified groups of soldiers in very tight shots of lifeboats or jetties being mown down by German planes their fear, their peril, becomes our own.

Apart from Kenneth Branagh as a Naval commander and Tom Hardy as a pilot Nolan chose to use unknown actors to become those frightened boys without even the benefit of much dialogue. Between them all they would have less lines throughout the whole film than in a single scene from Shakespeare.

Yes, I know Harry is in it. Nolan vows he was the best screen test for the role and I have to say he was much better than I thought he would be. At no moment did the pop star pop up and he was quite effective in his characterisation. Who knew.

We don’t see Tom Hardy’s face at all as it is inside his oxygen mask almost all the time. He doesn’t give heroic speeches or dashing quips, what he says is workmanlike and therefore more truly heroic than the ‘smoke me a kipper I’ll be back for breakfast’ club. When he faces a life or death decision, he doesn’t say a word. We just see him look from the men in peril, to the enemy planes, to his busted fuel gauge and we know what he will choose.

Brilliantly minimal.

The use of sound is so effective at heightening the tension as each story arc reaches its peak that my nerves were jangling. Apparently, Nolan used something called a ‘Shepard Tone’, in which ascending notes are subtly cycled to give the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. That rising pitch reached me somewhere around the base of my skull and got into my hindbrain and screamed ‘danger’.

Add to that the synthesized sound of a stop watch and why would you need any dialogue about how close the Germans were or how little time they had to evacuate everyone?

The evacuation, using a fleet of tiny civilian craft is the stuff of legend and a great moment to lift the spirits in this film. But if you, like me, saw The Snow Goose at an impressionable age, you’ve seen it before.

It is those frightened men that will stay with me, and their struggle. The moments of frailty, of shame that we know were turned into a stoicism that would eventually triumph.

Image via facebook.com/pg/Dunkirkmovie

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Ros Hull

Roslyn is a writer and storyteller who loves all things Canberra, her family, sci fi and movies – but not in that order. She has worked in museum education since 2001 and has a passion for imparting knowledge to others. Writing is her happy place, particularly if there is a dog at her feet and a coffee in her hand. More about the Author

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