That’s what my friend Imojen posted on Facebook and boy has she really hit the nail on the head.
This film is tense from the moment it begins to the moment it ends, and I wouldn’t so much call it an emotional ride as I would call it a 106 minute attack on the adrenal glands. You don’t jump from one emotion to another, you pretty much stay at peak stress levels the entire film with really no down period.
In fact – spoiler alert – Dunkirk happened relatively early in the war, so even when the film ends you don’t feel a sense of triumph, or relief, but rather a draining awareness that this barely touched the surface on the horrors to come.
In all honesty I would say this is the first film where the only character I can really relate to is Cillian Murphy – the only one who seemed to truly mirror my emotions every time the sound of a bomb rang through the speakers for the umpteenth time.
But in a world where Hollywood (a term here used in a broad sense) seems to be determined to pump out more war movies than all 6 British actors can keep up with, this one truly stands out.
Dunkirk stands out because it doesn’t look like a war drama. It doesn’t feel like a war drama. Shit, it definitely sounds like a war drama, but that’s because – as we all know – Hans Zimmer has approximately zero chill. But other than the terrifyingly anxiety-inducing score it is set against, and the obvious war storyline – this is nothing short of a visual and emotional masterpiece.
Set against the stunning French coastline, where the colours are muted, cold, and misty – with rough waves that show emotional turmoil and danger, rushing against the flat, emotionless beach. There’s a lot to be felt with just this, but the rolling shots from the airplanes, and the ocean-everywhere-you-look shots from the civilian boat; this is the kind of visual backdrop often suited to romantic dramas – but this no romantic drama.
The writing, however – now this is where Dunkirk really sets itself apart from its many, many war drama cousins.
Dunkirk works hard to create a compelling, unique storyline employing the use of merging timelines. At times, the different time settings were confusing (for me), and NPR seems to think it’s “convoluted” and an attempt to overcomplicate the plot, but to me this isn’t what it was.
There is no point in trying to hide the fact that Dunkirk really happened. That we all know how it ended, and we all know who wins in the end. The point of merging timelines is to overcomplicate the plot. To help viewers see past the modern, emotionally detached historical understanding of the war. The easily constructed “Hurrah! We won! The bad guys are dead!” that seems to be flooding our screens.
The war wasn’t just about big wins, and massive losses. Dunkirk recognises that it can’t just be about who won or lost the war. It has to be about who we lost and how we lost them, and the overcomplicating timelines helps you to see multiple perspectives, and relive the trauma of a lot of scenes – much like soldiers would have.
But yes, this film did all it could to irreversibly damage my adrenal glands, and it worked very hard to make sure my heart was beating at no less than 1000bpm, but I suppose that’s what a war film should be.
There shouldn’t really be a happy moment. There shouldn’t be a release from tension, a moment to gather your thoughts. It should hit you hard, and not end until it’s over.
The tension, however, was made 9x stronger by Hans Zimmer refusing to back the fuck down.
The scene where Kenneth Branagh sees the civilian vessels had the most heart pounding, climax building music behind it, I honestly thought he was about to see a bomb come down. It was emotionally jarring, and it threw me off completely.
Other than the maybe-too-intense soundtrack, one other issue I had with the film was the lack of context. For the most part this made sense. Soldiers can be anyone – their backstory doesn’t matter; we all deserve to survive.
However, when it came to the civilian boat we followed, I needed context. The father and sons’ relationship with George was too confusing to understand.
Forgive me if they are well-known historical figures whose background I should know, if that’s the case I plead ignorance.
But if not, then why did they treat him like a child? I understand 17 is young, but the way they talked to him, as if they were worried about him constantly (even before anything happened), and treated him almost as if he was perhaps disabled?
It wasn’t that he acted in a way that showed him to have a disability, or anything about him to constitute being treated with more concern than the other boy, but that is how they treated him and I wanted to know why. There is much to be said about the positivity that comes when including disabled characters – but this should be explicit, rather than implicit if it is the case. And anyway, he didn’t get a fair deal, so I’d be cautious to call it “positive”.
At the end of the day however, this film tore me to absolute shreds, and emotionally I don’t think I’ll ever quite recover.
I started this blog with an Imojen quote and I’m damn well going to end it with one, because she wasn’t fucking wrong when she said to me:
“Incredible movie I hope I never see it again”.
Too fucking right tbh.