J L’s review published on Letterboxd:
Achievement unlocked: I did *not* hate this. Roger Deakins saves and carries this film – he switches angles as smoothly and smartly as possible and always gives us a good variety of angles to keep things fresh. The compositions are always delicious, and he lights the shit out of those nighttime scenes. They’re already legendary.
But there’s not much he can do to correct the unmistakably flawed gimmick at heart. A lot of the movie involves people walking – swiveling and swirling the camera is not going to add suspense to where it lacks. The *two* long takes (Robbie Collin is right) also lead to many awkward moments of expository dialogue. I don’t even believe it’s 100% the nature of the experiment; we could’ve done without some of the exposition while retaining the real-time factor. Just trust the audience to know what your characters are doing and stop treating us like idiots.
Another problem with the experiment is one of the screenwriting shortcuts I hate the most. All of the stakes feel artificial: let’s throw in some enemies, or worse, kill some characters, because our other characters need threat and danger! The stakes don’t snowball, and just feel arbitrarily designed to satisfy our appetite for entertainment at sporadic intervals. Nor does it feel like arbitrariness is the point, as it is in Dunkirk, because the pacing is so obviously deliberate, like a 9-course dégustation with planned breaks in-between. There’s no better term to describe this kind of filmmaking than the great words of Scorsese: “theme park”.
Christopher Nolan* understood that, if you want to do something like this, you really can’t afford to drop the tension – Mendes elects to slow things down by adding a token French blonde woman with a baby (!) because we need character moments or whatever. All the time I just internally yelled “up the fucking stakes!” You can’t do the super tense real-time thing and still try to sneak in some quieter moments. The tension comes to a screeching halt and you glaringly reveal your intentionality. This is war; no one cares, just keep going!
Finally, we have some stakes again, as the film reaches its climax, just another spectacle to out-spectacle everything beforehand. It completely lacks the emotional resonance Dunkirk or even SPR has. It’s because I ultimately don’t really know what this movie is trying to say. War is bad? You can’t trust cartoonishly evil Germans? Benedict Cumberbatch’s character brings in a rather interesting point about the cyclical nature of war but I don’t think the film builds towards that at all. If anything, the celebratory conclusion contradicts it. And to anyone who prefers this over Dunkirk because it has so-called character development: fuck off. The attempts to write “character” into this thing are pathetic surface-level signifiers that make me roll my eyes back into my brain. Writing-wise, this doesn’t have the balls to own its experiment.
* on the weird thing going on between Mendes and Nolan: I don’t mind Mendes being so shamelessly derivative of Nolan. It’s fine to do something unoriginal as long as you nail your execution. But Mendes doesn’t.