Monday, 31 July 2017

That's the spirit

The unthinkable happened recently, Rachel and I managed to get to the cinema together minus the children. This doesn't happen very often, we normally have to book a day off work together while the kids are at school and sit in an almost empty cinema watching a random movie (assuming there's one we like the look of).

We were down in Reading for a friend's birthday and had a couple of hours to kill, so it was a simple choice between a rainy Reading town centre and the chance for us both to watch Christopher Nolan's latest in the cinema (the best place to watch his movies).

For my money, Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad film. I've liked them all. His films have the air of touring theatre insofar as he seems to use a small cast across a variety of movies, with Tom Hardy being his current favoured actor.

And I didn't know what to expect. I'd only seen the one trailer and a handful of movie poster quotes, this more due to my lack of time to research now that I have a family than anything else. So in we went with a genuine sense of intrigue and lack of preconceptions.

And we were blown away.

One of the greatest British war movies.

There's no point waiting for the end of this blog to find out if this is a good movie. It's not. It's a great movie. I'd say it may come to be regarded as one of the greatest British war films ever made. It's right up there. It brings a classic feel to modern film making and will have a huge resonance with anyone who grew up watching classic British war movies. This is as much a maritime film as it is about the stranded soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk, it reminds us of a time when we were a nation of sailors, when we had to make a stand against one of the worst threats in living memory, and had to recover from the hammer blow of being driven from mainland Europe by the German war machine.

And it is soaring in its emotional weight, whether it's the thrill of seeing a trio of Spitfires racing overhead from the point of view of a civilian boat (that engine noise makes the heart leap), or not knowing how to count the lives lost when another British vessel is sunk by the Luftwaffe.

And here's the thing, in these days of limitless possibilities thanks to advances in CGI, and so many films hammering your senses with soundtracks, dialogue, action and explosions, this film is astonishingly minimalist.

From the opening shot you hardly see one German soldier (if any until the last scene), but you know they are there and you know they are a genuine threat. The sound design on this film is incredible, whether it be the effects of gunfire offscreen or the soundtrack itself. Everything serves to ramp up the tension. Rachel commented that it was the tensest she's ever felt in a cinema and it's hard to argue. Even the smallest issues became potential life and death fights, whether it was getting soldiers out of the sea before an oil leak caught fire, or the pilot attempting to work the landing gear on the Spitfire by hand.

It's a very different style of war movie. There isn't any bombast, the opening scene almost feels as if Nolan has consciously decided to go as far away from the opening of Saving Private Ryan as possible. It contains a completely different pace and focusses entirely on character, intensity and a very British sense of sacrifice.

No more holidays on the Isle of Wight.

And this is what most surprised me: despite the subject matter and the genre this film has an exceptionally small and personal feel. We are treated to 3 separate storylines that intertwine brilliantly. Nolan interweaves the different narratives and their respective timings like a master, and when it all comes together the outcome is breathtaking. And heartbreaking. This is a story about people and the impact of war on normal lives. He tells a story that everyone can relate to.

The considered soundtrack and lack of dialogue is made even stronger when you realise you are watching a film made by a truly visual storyteller. The confidence evident in this is striking. In most cases you are reacting to things you can't see (such as the Germans), made fearful from off-camera events or sharing the same claustrophobia as the characters. To say the scenes of soldiers aboard sinking ships are terrifying would be understating it. I may never go on the Isle of Wight ferry again.

If that wasn't enough, the film switches tack to something akin to euphoria in the scenes of aerial dogfights. You watch through gritted teeth as you hope against all hope that the RAF pilots will take down their Luftwaffe opponents and almost punch the air when they vanquish their foes. It's exhilarating cinema of the highest order.

But what of the acting? It's first rate across the board (yes, even Harry Styles). Not one actor stands out, there are no virtuoso performances, everyone is in it for the team. Each actor is wonderfully matter of fact and understated, no doubt something to do with the classic British reserve. This isn't a film that needs the hero to stand on the beach and rally the troops. This is a film about the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, and it's all the better for it.

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