Dunkirk

For F*** Magazine

DUNKIRK 

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Genre : Action/War
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

There have been plenty of films set during the Second World War, and plenty of excellent ones at that, but you’ve never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It is May 1940, and 400 000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France have been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, by German forces. With the waters surrounding the beach too shallow for naval vessels, hundreds of small personal craft are called into service to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. British Army private Tommy (Whitehead) is just trying to get home, while Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnat (D’Arcy) oversee the evacuation on the ground. Making his way to Dunkirk in his boat is Mr. Dawson (Rylance), accompanied by his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s best friend George (Keoghan). On the way to Dunkirk, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a German U-Boat attack. In the skies overhead flies Farrier (Hardy), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot warding off attacks from German fighters. As time runs out for the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, all they need to be victorious is to survive.

The very notion of Christopher Nolan writing and directing a WWII movie sent expectations for Dunkirk sky-rocketing. The film has lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, those expectations. Cutting through the stodginess that can sometimes plague period pieces, Nolan delivers something revelatory. There’s no glamour, no romance, no treacly sentimentality, no pomp, no circumstance – from the opening moments, viewers are plunged into the thick of unspooling chaos, trapped alongside the film’s characters in a variety of panic-inducing circumstances.

Taut and running a lean 107 minutes, unusual for a movie of this type, Dunkirk unfolds with searing immediacy. Dunkirk is not about the strength and sheer might of its heroes – Winston Churchill characterised the events that led to the stranding of the 400 000 Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster”. Dunkirk is not a chest-thumping ode to a bygone age of ‘true heroism’, nor is it a withering, cynical proclamation that ‘war is hell’. It’s not making any grand statements, it’s transporting the audience into situations so hopeless and so desperate that they’ll be gasping for air.

Putting the film together was a staggering logistical undertaking, and Nolan waited to accrue experience making large-scale blockbusters before tackling this film, which he has wanted to make since he was a student. Nolan makes the massive scope of the film digestible for audiences by dividing Dunkirk into three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. The Germans are a faceless enemy, making their presence felt through the ordnance they bombard the beach with. With each cluster of protagonists having clear objectives to complete, Dunkirk is easy to follow, and doesn’t contain unwieldy stretches of exposition.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography provides both the breathless immersion of being stuck below decks in a sinking ship and the soaring majesty of Spitfires tearing across the sky, an expanse of ocean beneath the planes. Hans Zimmer’s frantic score contains no lush, sweeping melodies, incorporating interesting textural elements including the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch.

Another thing that sets Dunkirk apart from its prestige drama ilk is that there are no showy performances finely tuned for maximum Academy appeal. Make no mistake, the acting is excellent, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself and character back-stories and motivations are deliberately scarce, so we can focus on the moment. It’s unusual that a thespian of Branagh’s calibre is given relatively little to do, but it works. Newcomer Whitehead aptly captures the wide-eyed innocence and desperation of a young soldier swept up in a colossal conflict, while Harry Styles, to his credit, is barely distracting.

 

Murphy’s turn as the PTSD-stricken Shivering Soldier, who is otherwise unnamed, is probably the closest thing Dunkirk has to a virtuoso turn, and even then, it isn’t overplayed. Rylance showcases the masterful restraint he’s become known for, his character embodying the quiet, everyday heroism displayed by the mariners who came to the soldiers’ rescue. While Hardy is at his best when playing antiheroes, roguish types or straight-up villains, but he’s easy to root for as the pilot who tries to save the day.

Stripping away the stylistic trappings often associated with WWII epics, Nolan shapes Dunkirk into a film that’s visceral and affecting, but is also spectacular and deserves to be seen on as large a screen as one can find. While it’s not the easiest film to watch, Nolan skilfully refrains from gratuitous blood and gore – it’s horrifying without being unnecessarily so. Because of its heavy subject matter and the tension with which it is brought to life, Dunkirk does feel longer than its running time and is not necessarily a film that begs to be re-watched immediately, but it is an effectively harrowing masterpiece all the same.

Summary: A war film that evokes helplessness and desperation like few before it, Dunkirk will thrill, shock and shake audiences to their core.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bitter Harvest

For F*** Magazine

BITTER HARVEST 

Director : George Mendeluk
Cast : Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamar Hassan, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Austen, Richard Brake, Gary Oliver
Genre : Historical/Romance
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16

The Soviet famine of 1932-33, also known as the ‘Holodomor’, is an oft-overlooked historical atrocity. This romantic drama is set against this event, as Joseph Stalin (Oliver) seized farmers’ harvests and starved the Soviet Ukraine populace, as part of his collectivisation campaign. The starvation is accompanied by indiscriminate slaughter, with Stalin’s troops rounding up dissenters and throwing them into gulags, where they eventually face firing squads. Yuri (Irons), a young artist whose grandfather was a famous warrior, is separated from his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Barks) when he travels to Kiev to attend art school. Back home, Stalin’s men, led by Commissar Sergei (Hassan), are terrorising the farmers and their families. Caught in the violence and despair, Yuri must make his way home to be reunited with Natalka.

Bitter Harvest is directed by George Mendeluk, a Canadian filmmaker of Ukrainian descent. Mendeluk co-wrote the film with Ukrainian-Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky, who decided to make a film on the subject when he visited Ukraine in 1999. This is a labour of love for both men, who feel a responsibility to shed light on this man-made famine which only became public knowledge after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Mendeluk and Bachynsky have noble intentions, Bitter Harvest falls short of being the impactful, revelatory and visceral experience it could’ve been.

This is a film that aspires to be a sweeping period romance, setting a fictional tale of young lovers rent apart by the horrors of war against an actual historical tragedy. The love story at the core of Bitter Harvest is rote and melodramatic. It is intended to be a way in for audiences, the vast majority of whom will be unfamiliar with the historical context, but instead, it serves to cheapen the actual suffering experienced by the Ukrainians. While it certainly wasn’t what Mendeluk intended and despite the horrifying actions of the Soviet troops that are depicted, Bitter Harvest is sometimes in danger of romanticising the Holodomor. The film busies itself with looking painterly above delving into its characters. Most filmgoers don’t want to sit through a history lesson, but the compelling story of the anti-Bolshevik resistance ends up playing second fiddle to a ho-hum love story.

Bitter Harvest benefits from location filming in Ukraine itself, as well as the talent and experience of veteran cinematographer Douglas Milsome. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, with its lush, mournful strings, sounds just like what one would expect from a film in this genre. Despite its strong production values, various factors undercut Bitter Harvest’s authenticity. One such factor is that everyone’s speaking with clipped English accents. We understand that making the film in the English language broadens its reach, and that the U.K. cast might have sounded silly affecting Ukrainian accents, but this sonic incongruity is often distracting. It also invokes “Englishness = prestige”, the same reason why everyone in The Danish Girl sounded a little Masterpiece Theatre-esque.

Even more detrimental is the sheer cheesiness of the dialogue. “You shouldn’t love me. I will only bring you misfortune,” Natalka tells Yuri forlornly.

“Oh, I have been a fool for lesser things,” Yuri replies, as the audience rolls their eyes.

Irons, who will have “the son of Jeremy Irons” following any mention of his name for the foreseeable future, is a bland leading man. Yuri is a sympathetic character, a sensitive soul who is more at home painting than taking arms against enemy combatants. As played by Irons however, we never fully step into Yuri’s shoes, and it’s hard to feel a lot of him even as he endures significant hardship.

Barks, who finds herself associating with student revolutionaries again after playing Éponine in Les Misérables, occasionally gets to exhibit the blend of fighting spirit and fragility that served her so well in that film. Hassan’s Sergei is little more than a snarling villain, while Terence Stamp pops up in a dignified supporting role. Aneurin Barnard’s spirited resistance leader is entertaining to watch, but he has too little screen time.

The general critical consensus on Bitter Harvest is that while it will raise the awareness of the Holodomor, it doesn’t do the victims of the famine-genocide due justice. It aspires to the soaring, searing wartime romances of yore, but its cheesiness and complete lack of subtlety work against it at every turn.

Summary: Bitter Harvest shines a light on a dark, little-known chapter of history, but its hokey romance and heavy-handed treatment of historical events let it down, despite the filmmakers’ admirable intentions.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong