Chris Nolan’s latest film tells of the infamous evacuation of four hundred thousand troops from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War Two. In lesser hands, by which I mean in pretty much anyone else’s hands, Dunkirk would be a straight forward war flick undoubtably full of rousing speeches and long scenes brimmed full of tedious yet deemed necessary exposition, but Nolan isn’t your average film maker.
Dunkirk’s narrative is focused on three main locations. Land, sea and air. And Nolan being Nolan, it’s not quite that simple. Dunkirk also takes place over thee time periods. A week on the beaches, a day on the seas and one hour in the air. Each timeline wonderfully woven together. It’s masterful storytelling. The suspense is omnipresent, there’s no down-time, which might have been used to give us some character beats or backstory but that ultimately would have derailed the experience that Nolan has created here. What this structure does is create a relentless pace and tension that doesn’t drop for even a moment of its 106 minute runtime. It’s a total immersive experience from minute one.
Dunkirk portrays the terror of war effectively. It’s not death or injury that’s the focus here, it’s the absolute fear. For a war film, there is a significant lack of focus on actual fighting, in fact, we don’t see any enemy soldiers throughout the film. We see everything from the perspective of the allied soldiers and nothing from ‘behind enemy lines’ which only helps build the suspense.
Where Hacksaw Ridge focused on horrific injuries suffered by soldiers and slow-motion action beats, Dunkirk instead focuses on those left alive. It decides to focus more on the thin margins between survival and death. Anyone could go at any minute and you as the viewer are aware of that. The stakes feel so incredibly real because Nolan doesn’t make any of his characters feel safe, they could all be dead any second. In this respect, it almost feels more like a disaster film, than a war one.
Nolan manages to entirely explain what’s going on by doing what all great film makers do, by showing and not telling. Instead of spending time on overlong scenes of army high-ups explaining their grand plans on a big map or scenes of soldiers dying in their comrades’ arms, Dunkirk focusses on the troops on the ground (or in the sea…or in the air). In fact, there’s very little dialogue here for a film with a plot as complex as this and there’s literally zero character backstory or development. But it doesn’t matter.
It’s a bold move which could leave a lesser film feeling disjointed or empty or heartless but the lack of dialogue makes it feel so much more visceral and grounded. It creates this feeling of shell-shock and makes the film feel like one giant set-piece. It’s an assault on the senses, and if you can see this in IMAX, you really should. The sound design is incredible, so much so in that you almost feel as if the bullets and the bombs going off around you. Hans Zimmer’s score is a monumental reason why the film works as well as it does. It’s absolutely relentless and it’s almost the time keeper of the film, driving it forward and creating tension where it’s needed and slowing it down when necessary.
On the land, the allied troops are desperately awaiting rescue from the surrounding German army with no way of escape while cowering in terror as the German airforce pass overhead picking them off, almost one by one. The focus is mainly on a group of young men played by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard as they flea in terror of the encroaching enemy.
On the seas, civilians and amateur sailors are called upon to ferry soldiers away from danger in a race against time. Mark Rylance stars as an older fellow who decides to to answer the summons by setting off across the channel. Rylance is excellent in the role as you’d expect. His character, Mr Dawson is unwavering his determination to do his duty, even if it means certain death. Tensions rise when Cillian Murphy’s shipwrecked character is rescued by Mr Dawson and begs him to turn the boat around. Murphy does a fantastic job of portraying a shellshocked soldier. The terror and the fear never really goes away in this film even when the characters are in relative safety.
Tom Hardy plays a fighter pilot, Farrier, desperately trying to stop enemy planes from attacking the retreating allied troops along with Collins (Jack Lowden). The dogfights in the skies are gripping and authentic and these scenes allow the viewer to observe events we’ve already seen but from a different perspective. The air-based scenes take place over the shortest period of time but the way that Nolan has edited together these three different storylines is genius. Think the ending of Inception but over an entire film.
Dunkirk isn’t just an exercise in clever, immersive filmmaking, it’s also a surprisingly moving film. Considering that we have hardly any time learning about any of our characters, we still feel for them. This is a testament to the directing and writing of course but also to the level of acting with each actor managing to make the most of what little dialogue they have. Kenneth Branagh is a standout for me with a nicely understated performance.
With Dunkirk Nolan has delivered a war film like no other. It’s bold and daring and one of the most suspenseful and immersive experiences one can have at the cinema.