Film Review – Dunkirk (2017): Powerful & emotional filmmaking at its best

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On exiting the cinema tonight after seeing Dunkirk, one thought struck me in particular. After all the big, loud, brash Hollywood fodder in the trailers before it, here was a film that proves that a big budget does not have to mean over the top, overly long, Hollywood rubbish! Thank you Christopher Nolan!

Dunkirk is quite simply breathtaking in its raw, powerful, emotional depth, across a mere [96] minutes. I had expected quality from Mr Nolan and he delivered in spades, with a film that everyone should take time out of their lives to see. Those of us in the UK are perhaps more likely to be aware of the story of Dunkirk and it is fantastic that this incredible tale from WWII is being presented to a wider audience.

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For those less familiar, in 1940, after Nazi Germany had invaded France, the Allied forces were pushed back to the city of Dunkirk, resulting in almost 400,000 stranded soldiers in need of rescue on the beach. Attacked on land and by air, they were trapped and the fact so many survived is thanks to not only the bravery of the Royal Air Force, but also the civilian boats that answered the call to cross the English Channel to provide rescue, putting themselves in great danger in doing so, due to U-Boat attack and enemy fire.

I've been a fan of Nolan as a film-maker for years and he truly shows his skill as both a writer and director with this film. Structure-wise, Dunkirk is written in a very clever way, in that it is not a simple linear story. It takes a bit of time, but you start to pick up that the boat you saw capsized a few minutes ago is still afloat, or the people in the water earlier are suddenly characters you realise you know well from a different story strand. The script's movement from storylines on land, sea and air, over varying lengths of time (one week, one day and one hour respectively) means that you see moments more than once, from different perspectives, which only enhances their emotional power. It also means you have to pay attention as an audience member and I certainly found it a brilliant way of packing so much story in to a relatively short running time.

I know some have complained about the lack of introduction of the characters, but for me, simply throwing us in to the film's events and us having to learn who everyone is, gave the film another layer of realism; as if we were stepping in to a moment in time and witnessing it first hand.

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The acting is also excellent. There isn't loads of dialogue, requiring the cast to capture and convey the events and experiences we see through more than simple dialogue. It takes confidence for a film maker to not try and saturate a story with needless words and Nolan's use of this style also makes the film seem so much more real and true to life. We are watching people simply trying to survive.

The cast contains some of the most respected actors around. Tom Hardy moved me to tears by the end as the RAF pilot determined to stay in the air as long as he could to provide air support for those trying to rescue those stranded below. Cillian Murphy is wonderful as the shell-shocked survivor of a U-Boat bombing, Kenneth Branagh brings weight and authority as the Navy Commander, determined to try and get his men home and Mark Rylance gives yet another quiet, nuanced performance as the civilian determined to play his part in helping save his fellow countrymen. Much has also been said about the inclusion of Harry Styles in the cast, but he gives a solid performance as a simple soldier, who desperately just wants to make it home, despite feeling shame that their attack has resulted in retreat. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead is also excellent as Tommy, also struggling to be rescued.

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Each aspect of the story is handled beautifully and as the strands begin to crash together, as the intensity of the events increases, I found myself gripped by just how real it all felt. Visually, it is excellent too. Nothing is done to extreme, so that the film always feels authentic and the opposite of Hollywood. The visuals of the battles in the air over the vast water of the English Channel are incredible, as are the shots when the full scale of the civilian rescue operation become apparent (I had a lump in my throat).

On top of that is Hans Zimmer's intense score. There is an undercurrent of music constantly and the strong use of strings and a ticking clock effect (produced using Nolan's own pocket watch) add an urgency and tension to every scene. It keeps you on edge. Therefore, the brief moments when the music disappears carry even more weight. Add in the inclusion of a slowed down version Edward Elgar's beautiful classical music "Nimrod" and the final scenes in particular had me shedding some tears (the track is Variation 15 on the soundtrack for those who want to hear it again).

All in all, this was every bit as brilliant a film as I had hoped for. Cleverly structured, fantastically and confidently directed and terrifically acted; the result being a truly powerful, realistic insight in to one of the most memorable stories of WWII. I urge everyone to go and see it as fast as you can (preferably on an IMAX screen if you can get to one).

 

 

 

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Theatre Review – The Winter’s Tale starring Judi Dench & Kenneth Branagh

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The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s residence at the Garrick Theatre began this month with a new production of The Winter’s Tale, which with its initial Christmas setting marks the start of the festive theatreland season.

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Hadley Fraser & Kenneth Branagh. Credit: Johan Persson

Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s lesser known and performed plays, The Winter’s Tale highlights the dangers of jealousy and how such feelings can come at a costly price, as Leontes, King of Sicilia (Branagh) begins to dislike the closeness of his pregnant wife to his friend and visitng monarch Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Once such thoughts have taken root, he convinces himself of her infidelity, imprisoning her and ordering that his new baby daughter (who he refuses to believe is his) be taken far away, much to the dismay of the Queen’s trusted companion Paulina (Dench), who tries her best to make him see sense. Sixteen years later, having been raised by a shepherd, the girl meets and falls in love with Polixenes’s son Florizel, but will the truth of her parentage be discovered and Leontes have a chance at redemption?

The play is an interesting mix of concepts from Shakespeare’s canon – characters concealing their identity, jealousy, tragedy, unlikely love and redemption and even though I’d only seen it once before at the RSC in 2009, it is one of my favourites and with such a strong cast, I’d been looking forward to the arrival of this production.

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Judi Dench & Miranda Raison. Credit: Johan Persson

After seeing one of the last previews before press night, overall, I found this to be a hugely enjoyable production. The set by Christopher Oram perfectly captures the mood during the various settings of the play, beginning in a warm, traditional Christmas setting of velvets and reds, with a glorious smell of spices in the air (the benefit of sitting in the second row). As Leontes moves in to a darker, paranoid and ultimately lonely phase, the colour and warmth of the stage drains away in favour of a colder, stark, wintry setting, only for the second act, set 16 years later, to bring the fun and colour back through the home of the shepherd and his friends.

There are plenty of very good performances on the stage. I booked for Dame Judi Dench and she didn’t disappoint, bringing much more life and depth to her supporting role as Paulina than I remember from the last version I saw. Her ease with Shakespeare is clear and she brings such gravitas to the production, acting everyone off the stage. Hadley Fraser is also excellent as Polixenes, whose shock at discovering Leontes’s plan to kill him feeling genuine and believable, as does his later anger directed at his son’s choice of bride. Michael Pennington is good as Paulina’s husband Antigonus (who is destined to encounter the play’s infamous bear, which is sadly only done via a projection on a curtain). I did however feel that he made much less of an impression than Judi Dench, despite them both having relatively small roles and I would have instead preferred to see him return to his wonderful John of Gaunt in the RSC’s Richard II (now to be played by Julian Glover).

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Tom Bateman & Jessie Buckley. Credit: Johan Persson

The second half of the play introduces new characters, as we follow the lives of Perdita’s adopted family, many years later. I liked Jessie Buckley’s Perdita, although I was a bit distracted by her accent, which seemed to wander from Irish, to West Country and I think her chemistry with Tom Bateman (as Florizel) is still evolving and will grown stronger over the run. Mr Bateman has come a long way since the first preview of Much Ado in 2011 (his professional debut) and I thought he was very good as the young prince, determined to marry for love, in spite of his father’s wishes. The happy, free-spirited, frivolity of the shepherds is a lovely, light contrast to the sad mood of the palace we left in the first half and I thoroughly enjoyed all the dancing and singing, which brought the stage and the play to life.

Miranda Raison (already in one of my favourite plays of the theatre year, Hello/Goodbye) was fantastic as Leontes’s wife Hermione. She conveys her deep love for her family and her shock and hurt at the allegations against her perfectly and brings the inner strength and dignity of her character to life so well. I truly admired Hermione’s composure and grace. On top of that she is utterly beautiful, as if she has stepped out of a fairytale, ideal for the play’s fantastical conclusion.

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Kenneth Branagh. Credit: Johan Persson

Then I come to the weakest link of the production, which in my view is Kenneth Branagh himself. Throughout, I felt his delivery of the text was very stilted, enhanced by pauses which resulted in a loss of rhythm and flow, which made his performance seem quite disjointed. I also found him to be incredibly over the top, such as his almost instantaneous switch from happy, loving husband, to crazed madman and his reaction to the tragic news about his wife Hermione. It just didn’t work for me.

Despite my disappointment and frustration with Mr Branagh himself, I would certainly still recommend a trip to this production if you can find a ticket (due to it selling out in advance thanks to the power of Judi Dench, although the app Today Tix provides a daily ticket lottery option). It is an enjoyable, festive production, showcasing one of the country’s finest actresses, who I am always thrilled to watch on stage, as well as those still at the beginning of their careers and the magical quality of Shakespeare’s story is very much alive in this interpretation. Yes, it could have been better, but I still enjoyed it despite its faults.

The Winter’s Tale continues its run at the Garrick Theatre until 16th January 2016. For further details visit the website. The mobile app Today Tix runs a ticket lottery for the front row each day of the performance, where if successful you will be able to buy up to two tickets for £15 each. The play will also be screened live in cinemas on 26th November.

Theatre 2015: Mid-Year Review

So, as we arrive in the second half of 2015, I thought I’d take a moment or two to reflect on the first half of the year’s theatre offerings. I’ve probably seen less than I expected to, but 2015 is already shaping up to be a superb year for theatre, with some truly impressive productions and performances already on the list. I’m predicting my end of year top 10 review is going to be a tough one this year!

So, starting with the stats, I’ve currently seen 35 productions this year, seeing three of those more than once. As my post looking ahead to the year’s theatre suggested, there was lots to look forward to and from those I’ve already ticked off the list, 2015 certainly isn’t disappointing me so far. Some of the highlights are ones I expected to be high on the list, while others were unexpected gems that struck a cord with me and will become firm favourites for years to come. So here are my favourite productions and performances from the year so far, as well as the disappointments (thankfully not many so far).

Favourite productions of the year so far

Starting with the top of the tree are the productions that I absolutely loved and which will almost certainly make it in to my end of year top 10 list. It’s a varied mix, with new material, revivals of classics and a musical.

1. Hello/Goodbye (Hampstead Theatre)

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This may be an unexpected number one, but so far for me it’s easily Hello/Goodbye. Peter Souter’s new play ran at the Hampstead Theatre for a relatively short run last year and after missing it then I’m so pleased I caught it in the main space. In fact I loved it so much, I had to see it more than once. I knew nothing of the plot beforehand and its simple story of a couple’s relationship over a decade, told in two acts, struck a chord with me. Shaun Evans and Miranda Raison had a wonderful chemistry, thrown together when they both come to move in to the same flat. The script was witty, heartfelt, filled with unexpected curves in storyline and by the end I felt rather moved, as you were reminded of how the simplest of gestures are sometimes the most powerful. Read my full review here.

2. Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

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This production of probably my favourite Shakespeare comedy become the best version of the play I’d seen immediately (sorry David Tennant!). The RSC is hard to beat when it comes to Shakespeare and this was certainly a production through which the home of the Bard truly shone. Bringing back some alumni from the 2008 season in the form of Ed Bennett and Sam Alexander (still two of my favourite actors), we were treated to a Much Ado set at the close of Word War One, in a stately home being used a hospital during the war. As the soldiers return from the Front, Beatrice and Benedick meet and sparks fly. Ed Bennett has truly grown as an actor over the years. As someone who was sitting tensely in the Novello during press night of Hamlet in 2008 when he took over for Mr Tennant, it’s been lovely to watch him develop and he is now a truly wonderful leading man and was a superb Benedick. Together with his sparkling chemistry with Michelle Terry, a strong ensemble (Sam Alexander creating the most three-dimensional Don John I’ve seen), wonderful music and an utterly gorgeous set that I could have lived in, this was a heartwarming three hours in Stratford-Upon-Avon. For those who missed it (it’s criminal there was no London run), the DVD on this and the equally lovely Love’s Labour’s Lost will be out later in the year. Read my full review here.

3. City of Angels (Donmar Warehouse)

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This revival of this musical at the Donmar Warehouse was another superb night at the theatre. The setting, both within the real world and the pages of the writer’s script was quirky and brought to life brilliantly by the design team, with the use of black and white/colour to depict them such an effective choice. It also had one of the strongest vocal ensembles I can imagine, with Rosalie Craig, Hadley Fraser, Tam Matu, Katherine Kelly and Samantha Barks to name just a handful, delivering perfect acting and singing. I’m still sad there was no West End run, not to mention no soundtrack released.

4. The Ruling Class (Trafalgar Studios)

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Jamie Lloyd’s second Trafalgar Transformed season continued with the return of James McAvoy, easily one of the best young British actors around at the moment. I had high expectations for this, which were only raised once the reviews and opinions of friends reached me. Thankfully The Ruling Class didn’t disappoint. It was very very funny, sometimes inappropriately so, entertaining, but also quite dark in places. All of which was driven at 100 miles an hour by McAvoy’s incredible performance. The part called upon him to give everything, mentally and physically – he sang, danced, screamed, cried, laughed and as an audience member you just couldn’t take your attention from him. Read my full review here.

5. Rules For Living (National Theatre, Dorfman)

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Having just ended at the National Theatre, Rules For Living was a new play by Sam Holcroft, which wonderfully lays bare the dynamics of a family during Christmas Day. Rivalries become apparent, secrets are exposed and relationships become ever strained, all the while presented in this colourful, gameshow style set up, in which the audience gain an insight in to the psyches of the characters and the rules by which they live their lives. It has drama and awkwardness, but my lasting memory of this production was laughter, which I very much needed at the time and it’s final scenes are classics that I’ll remember for a long time. Read my full review here.

6. Tree (Old Vic)

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One of my highlights of 2014 was Daniel Kitson’s Analog.ue and this new play of his at the Old Vic was an early favourite of this year. A two hander between Kitson and Tim Key, this play sees two men discuss life, with one remaining up a tree throughout! Short and sweet. I loved every moment. Read my full review here.

Stand out performances of the year so far As well as productions, there have already been some impressive individual performances.

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1. James McAvoy in The Ruling Class I’ve already sang McAvoy’s praises above so there’s not much more I can add here. The cast as a whole was excellent in The Ruling Class, but McAvoy was spectacular.

2. John Heffernan in Oppenheimer A play about the history of the creation of the first atomic bomb may not immediately sound like a fun night at the theatre, but this RSC play managed to bring what could have been quite a dry, scientific story to the stage in an engaging and entertaining way (you can read my full review here). This was in no small way also helped by the utterly brilliant John Heffernan in the title role, whose performance of Oppenheimer was his most commanding role to date and his final speech at the play’s close, as his character reflects on his achievement was certainly very powerful to witness. His career continues to excite and I am eagerly awaiting his next role – Hamlet anyone?

3. Imelda Staunton in Gypsy I was lucky enough to see Imelda Staunton’s award-winning performance in Sweeney Todd and thought I’d seen her at her best. How wrong I was! The transfer of Chichester’s musical to the Savoy in London was a welcome one and you couldn’t fail to be impressed by Imelda’s performance as Mamma Rose. She isn’t a hugely likeable person, domineering and putting ever more pressure on her children, to fuel her own lost ambitions. However, you still can’t help but admire her strength and passion and hearing Imelda Staunton belt out those songs will stay with me for a long time to come. Book your tickets while you can! Read my full review here.

4. Ralph Fiennes in Man & Superman This revival of Bernard Shaw’s play intimidated me beforehand due to its lengthy running time (nearer 4 hours in the early days). It was certainly a strange play, shifting between one setting and the dream-like setting of hell for the third act and it certainly needed a strong actor in the lead role. Ralph Fiennes is someone I’ve always wanted to see on stage and this was certainly a good start, as he’s in almost every scene. How he remembered so much dialogue, most of which he delivered at rapid pace, I do not know! As someone who was in the audience for the night filmed live for NT:Live, it was perhaps even more impressive to witness Mr Fiennes bringing such a unique role to life.

Memorable moments of the year so far

There have also already been some wonderful moments on stage this year, whether a set, a scene or a line and here are my favourites.

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1. Watching the Treasure Island ship set rise up through its split levels on the Olivier stage 

The drum revolve of the Olivier stage was used to its full potential during this production, as we watched the entire ship rise up and through the cross section design, were able to see the rooms on all the levels. It was truly impressive.

2. So much incredibly colourful dialogue in The Motherf**cker With The Hat 

I saw this production recently (review on its way) and one thing that will stay in the mind is some of the incredibly colourful dialogue! A scene in which Veronica refers to Jackie’s mother is particularly memorable. I bet the play text makes for entertaining reading!

3. The final few minutes of The Red Lion

Another production I’ve seen recently was Patrick Marber’s latest football-related play at the National. I’m currently writing my review but suffice to say I thought it was a superb production, powerfully acted. However it was the final few moments of the play that will stay with me for, I imagine, quite some time. Go if you can.

Disappointments of the year so far

There always tend to be some disappointments, but so far there haven’t been too many this year. Other than the first one listed, I enjoyed aspects of the other three, whether the acting or the production values, but these are currently bottom of the pile for 2015.

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1. How To Hold Your Breath (Royal Court Theatre) I love Maxine Peake and she was the reason I booked this play. I don’t regret it in some ways as she was very good. However, as my review at the time made clear, this was simply not my cup of tea. From the moment early on, when a simple one night stand becomes a case of someone sleeping with a demon, I knew I was going to struggle to enjoy it. Although I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve, it was simply too strange for me.

2. Carmen Disruption (Almeida Theatre) I’ve loved the recent run of Almeida productions (Mr Burns aside), but Simon Stephens’s reimagining of Carmen was another let down for me. At least unlike How To Hold Your Breath, I did enjoy aspects of the play – some wonderful performances by Jack Farthing and Noma Dumezweni as one example, but overall it just didn’t work as a whole and I left feeling quite dissatisfied.

3. Closer (Donmar Warehouse) I was unfamiliar with Patrick Marber’s most successful play, having never seen it or watched the film and perhaps part of my disappointment stems from expecting too much to begin with. The cast was my reason for booking, with Rufus Sewell, Oliver Chris and the glorious Nancy Carroll too good to miss. Although the cast was very good, I just didn’t really enjoy the play. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood on the day I went as it’s rather dismal view of relationships wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed.

4. Miss Saigon (Prince of Edward Theatre) So many people say Miss Saigon is the greatest musical of all time. I simply can’t agree (I doubt anything will beat Les Miserables for me). Although the sets were fantastic and the vocal performance of Eva Noblezada as Kim was incredibly impressive, I did not like the story at all. I found over night falling in love of Kim and Chris unconvincing and unlike Les Miserables ultimate message of hope, forgiveness and love, I just found Miss Saigon to be a depressing tale of a woman used by a man, who then is too much of a coward to face the consequences of his actions. Add to that the lack of any truly memorable songs (for me anyway) and it’s not one I’ll rush back to.

Looking ahead – Coming up during the rest of 2015!

After looking back, the adventure of a theatregoer never ends, with new productions opening and being announced all the time. So, it’s only right to look to what productions are on the horizon. It’s always an exciting feeling to wonder which ones will be as brilliant as you hope and which will be so much more than you could have anticipated. There is certainly a lot to choose from coming up, but for me, these are the productions I’m most excited or curious about seeing over the next few months.

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1. Hamlet (Barbican Theatre)

Yes, it may be the obvious choice for number one, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing Mr Cumberbatch take on the iconic role of Hamlet next month at the Barbican. It’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play and he has been one of my favourite actors for years, especially on stage. It’s an exciting ensemble cast (although it’s a shame none of my fantasy cast made the cut!) and I admit to having high hopes. All fingers are crossed!

2. Bakkhai (Almeida Theatre)

Coming soon to the Almeida is their next Greek play, bringing the combination of Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel together on stage. The Almeida has been bringing some truly inventive and exciting productions to London since Rupert Goold took charge and I’m sure this will be another success. More tickets go on sale soon.

3. Guys & Dolls (Savoy Theatre)

I missed this in Chichester and therefore I’m thrilled it’s transferring to the Savoy in December. The cast is yet to be announced, but I sincerely hope some of the Chichester cast come on board for this run. Time will tell.

4. The Winter’s Tale (Garrick Theatre)

This is perhaps the production from Kenneth Branagh’s season that I am most looking forward to. Opening in October, this production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale will include in its cast not only Mr Branagh but, more importantly for me, Dame Judi Dench. She is always wonderful to watch on stage and I’m sure this will delight many people during its run.

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So that’s the first six months of my theatre year in a nutshell. It’s now time to see what I’ll enjoy in the second half. One of the most thrilling things about being a regular theatregoer is never knowing what unexpected gems you’ll discover, whether an actor, writer, or play. See you at the end of the year for the final round up!