Movie Reviews: Dunkirk, Pilgrimage, City of Ghosts

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (12A) is an epic tale of the greatest mass rescue of World War II, when 400,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were left stranded and undefended on Dunkirk beach as the German army closed in for the kill.

The story is composed of three distinct narrative strands: the events on Dunkirk beach, as soldiers are strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) struggles to get his men aboard Navy destroyers; the air battle, as RAF fighter pilot Harrier (Tom Hardy) dogfights with German Messerschmitts in the skies above; and the ‘little ships’ flotilla that sets sail from England for Dunkirk, here represented by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). 

Woven into these strands are individual stories, such as that of the shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose ship was torpedoed, and a group of soldiers who band together to escape the beach no matter what it takes. 

Nolan gets the mood right from the off, as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) wanders the eerily deserted streets of Dunkirk with his mates, scavenging for food and water; a brief but viscerally brutal outburst of violence later, we find Tommy strolling out of Dunkirk and down onto the vast beach, a surreal sight of hundreds of thousands of soldiers lined up in evacuation mode with not a single ship to be seen, sitting ducks as the murderous Stukas come roaring in, time and again.

Despite the fact that we know the story and its eventual outcome, Nolan manages to sustain a stomach-churning sense of tension, delivering a host of heart-stopping and jaw-dropping set-pieces. 

Hoyte van Hotema’s superb cinematography is crucial to the film’s success, whether he’s capturing the vast scale of the beach at Dunkirk or the disorientating experience of a dogfight high above the English Channel, and Hans Zimmer’s nerve-shredding score plays a huge part in sustaining the ominous mood. Add in a clutch of excellent performances from Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles (yes!), Mark Rylance, Aneurin Barnard and Cillian Murphy, and a characteristically clever narrative of multiple storylines from Christopher Nolan, and the result is a magnificent film that does full justice to ‘the miracle of Dunkirk.’

Pilgrimage

(12A) opens in the west of Ireland in 1209 AD, with a group of monks charged with delivering a holy relic to Waterford, and hence to Rome. 

Led by Brother Ciarán (John Lynch) and the French Cistercian Brother, Geraldus, (Stanley Weber), the monks must traverse a turbulent land in which the Norman invaders are at war with the native Irish. Written by Jamie Hannigan and directed by Brendan Muldowney, Pilgrimage is a powerful, gritty account of faith in a time of miracles, legend and bloody war. 

Seen through the eyes of the innocent novice Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), the story is a nuanced tale of the clash of religion and politics, as the treacherous Norman lord Raymond (Richard Armitage) — ostensibly the monks’ protector — schemes to steal the relic in order to boost his own prestige at court.

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Tom Comerford, who expertly captures the wild, rugged landscape of ancient Ireland, the film delivers a number of powerful action sequences, although it is at its most fascinating in its exploration of moral and spiritual compromise and historical realpolitik. Studded with fine performances, John Lynch, Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland are to the fore, Pilgrimage is a superb film, and yet another strong contender for Irish film of the year.

Matthew Heineman’s documentary City of Ghosts

(16s) tells the story of ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ (RBSS), a movement of citizen journalists who took part in the popular uprising against the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2012, only for their city of Raqqa to be declared the capital of the caliphate established by the so-called Islamic State in 2014.

Heineman shadows the RBSS resistance, as they receive information from war-torn Raqqa and broadcast it. It’s a gruesome tale: the videos sent from Raqqa detail public executions, crucifixions and heads mounted on spikes; meanwhile, family members of the RBSS are executed in reprisal, while assassins stalk them on the streets of Germany. 

‘Danger has a special taste,’ says one of the RBSS operatives laconically, but such examples of bravado are rare given the desolation wrought on Raqqa and the day-to-day grind of living in fear of sudden, brutal death. 

Optimism is at a premium, not least because the RBSS understands that ISIS is not an army, but an idea, and thus almost impossible to defeat; nevertheless, the RBSS will go on, ‘until ISIS is defeated or they kill us all.’ Sobering, haunting and devastatingly powerful, City of Ghosts is essential viewing.

Dunkirk: 5/5

Pilgrimage: 5/5

City of Ghosts: 5/5


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