thanks to DanielSTL via Flickr
Ever since he breathed new life into Batman with his Dark Knight trilogy, the films of British director Christopher Nolan seemed to have shifted up a gear - he no longer delivers mere movies, but cinematic events.
Whether the brain-mangling invention of Inception or the Kubrick-esque high-mindedness of Interstellar, he’s proven himself one of the most interesting big-scale directors working. And now he brings that thoughtfulness and cinematic flourish to one of the most incredible stories of the Second World War.
Hemmed in by advancing troops, 400,000 British troops are gathered on the beaches of Dunkirk. Bombs rain down from above and U-boats lurk in the waters. Churchill has already written off most of the men, expecting to get barely a tenth of them home alive through the rescue effort. Nolan’s film tracks three elements to this gruelling story – the grunts-eye-view on the beach, desperate to survive and escape; the journey of a civilian boat determined to help save the soldiers; and the aerial combat as spitfires face down the Luftwaffe in the blue skies overhead.
This isn’t the sweeping, broad-scope epic you might have expected. We don’t cut away to politicians wringing their hands or parents fearing the loss of their children. There are no backstories for any of the characters nor are there any scenes of German forces to give the enemy’s perspective. Instead, we’re plunged into the thick of the unfolding crisis for the duration of the tightly wrought 106 minute running time. We’re there on the beaches, hearing bullets whizz by and enemy aircraft shrieking overhead, as bombs churn up sand and bodies alike, with gnawing desperation building scene-by-scene.
The whole film plays like one huge, finely orchestrated climactic set piece and is a Hitchcockian masterclass in sustained tension. Much of the action is wordless - Nolan puts the physical plight of these men front and centre, lurching from one predicament to another, weary and battered, the save haven of Britain visible across the channel but also impossibly far.
The effect is immersive, often unbearably tense and at times extremely moving. Nolan gets some stick for his ‘clinical’ approach to filmmaking. Anyone who really thinks that can’t be paying much attention – while his films are always cerebral, they are also always shot through with an emotional charge. And that has never been more evident here – we know barely anything about these men and their lives, but it is the casual humanity of the film that we engage with. Some men are desperate to survive, others are desperate to save them. That’s enough to get us utterly on their side.
Nolan plays interesting tricks as he cuts between his three narrative strands – the beach takes place over a number of days, the boat trip over a single day and the aerial conflict unfolds over an hour. It means that as these elements collide with each other, we see the same scenes replayed at different times and perspectives. It’s an audacious move and a testament to Nolan that he credits the audience with enough intelligence to keep up. The gambit pays off magnificently – that relentless build of suspense hits fever pitch as the three strands finally converge. The result, in the closing stages of the film, is harrowing, suspense-filled and desperately moving.
Much has been said about Hans Zimmer’s ruthlessly effective score and rightly so – it adds immeasurably to the film. It, too, is an exercise in building ticking-clock tension, as much as assault on our senses as the sound of bullets and bombs.
The acting talent is first rate, and there is not a moment of grandstanding between them. It’s all about quiet dignity and determination, whether Kenneth Branagh’s commanding officer at Dunkirk, Mark Rylance’s ‘weekend sailor’ on his rescue mission or Tom Hardy’s steely pilot. Our way into the film comes through the eyes of Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy – he is excellent, a superbly empathetic presence throughout. From the first time we see him, we just want him to get home in one piece. Harry Styles, in case you were wondering, acquits himself extremely well in his debut role as another young soldier on the beach – the tender ages of the men we’re watching is striking, and a poignant reminder of the wasted lives claimed by the battlefield.
Dunkirk is something very special, and unlike any war film in recent memory. It’s a relentless exercise in nerve-jangling tension, and a stark reminder of the power of the big screen. Don’t wait for it to get to a TV set or a streaming service – seek out the biggest screen you can find and let yourself be immersed in this brilliantly crafted film, in all it its gruelling, heart-stopping splendour.