Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 106 mins
Synopsis: May 1940. The Second World War is in full swing and the Allied forces have found themselves pushed to the beaches of Normandy as the German Army overwhelms their European front. Stuck on the beach under a deluge of German bombings they face an interminable wait as hundreds of civilian vessels are sent to assist. Survival is all that matters as we witness this desperate evacuation from the land, the sea and the sky.
Dunkirk may be Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece! I know you’re probably reading that statement and thinking “aren’t they all?” Nolan’s fans have a fervour and messianic affection for his work that results in every new venture of his being labelled a masterwork, to the point where anyone who dares say something negative is met with derision and condemnation. I myself am guilty of this at times, forgiving some of his more notable flaws in my rapturous admiration for his work. With Dunkirk, however, Nolan has crystallised everything he is known for into something immersive, intense and close to pure filmic art.
Although upon announcement of this project many wondered why a director known for such high concept big budget fare would tackle a seemingly straightforward WW2 set picture. As with many other great films though it isn’t always what is being told but how it is told. The execution here nothing short of triumphant. Opening on a group of young men wandering the streets of Normandy as propaganda flyers fall from the sky claiming that the enemy is close. They are weary, thirsty and visibly nervous. The beach is near, they know that thousands of others are close, if only they can make it through. Out of nowhere deafening shots ring out (once again Nolan makes sure sound is overwhelmingly loud) and they run for it. It is a wordless, breathless and palpably tense opening, thrusting us into the heart of this battle with little in the way of exposition (barring some very brief title cards to give some context). On commencement of that first shot the movie pulses forward with ferocity and finding no time to let the men or us breathe.
As these men reach the beaches of Dunkirk the scale of Nolan’s vision here is clear to see. Thousands of soldiers stretched as far as the eye can see, real flesh and blood actors not swathes of cold CGI figures, all rigid and motionless waiting for a hoped for rescue. The nightmare of this scenario is realised with such precision and detail, little moments grace the screen; a soldier burying a comrade but taking the dead mans shoes to replace his own or the darkly funny trials of trying to take a shit amidst all of this sit alongside breathlessly terrifying bomb attacks that frame the enemy planes as malevolent monsters (the use of screeching sound effects exacerbates this tenfold). Not content to stick with the land perspective Nolan then expands his canvas and the true breadth of what he is striving for here is realised.
You see Dunkirk follows 3 aspects of the large scale evacuation. There is the aforementioned land perspective, told over the course of one week. We then have the tribulations of those at sea, represented by Mark Rylance’s kindly average citizen sailor, on their way to save those stranded but told across the space of a day. Finally you have the desperate struggle of a small Spitfire squadron hoping to defend the troops from the air over the course of mere hours. Most directors would allow these disparate strands to follow on chronologically from each other but Nolan isn’t interested in formula. Instead he and regular editor Lee Smith intersperse these differing time frames throughout the entire film. The effect is bewildering, gripping and staggering. Some may baulk at it, feeling confused that one scene goes from broad daylight then to pitch black night, but the way it builds is truly disarming. Storylines gradually intertwine with each other, moments witnessed in one timeline given clarity and focus in another. Before colliding together in the final act to something akin to a symphony’s crowning send-off. There are moments of poetic symmetry in the way the editing is handled, such as when a slowly sinking boat at night is juxtaposed with a downed plane quickly filling with water during the day. Always a director haunted by time, whether the tragic sadness of seeing your children growing older than you in Interstellar, the multifaceted time shifts in Inception or the actual loss of time in Memento, Nolan has an inherent fascination with the tick tick tock that drives all human existence. Dunkirk encapsulates the effect of time better than any of those. Even to the point where his own watch is laced throughout Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score (more on that later).
Nolan doesn’t simply use this to show off his editorial expertise though, rather he uses it to cement his overriding theme. That in wartime it is not the big grandstanding heroism that wins out, contrary to most war films he eschews jingoism and melodrama, but the little individual triumphs we make. The withholding of troubling information to protect a man with a war damaged psyche, the sharing of a jam sandwich with those in need, or the desire to continue flying a plane destined to run out of fuel just to protect that little boat. All these and more feature here, with the clever structure allowing you to see how those moments of heroism affect others, people you most likely with never meet. It is a touchingly nuanced look at humanity at its most primal. Nolan may be repeatedly accused of being coldly distant in his films’ emotional underbelly (an immensely misinformed fact) but here there is such soul, such emotional grace without ever the need to oversell it, in fact it is so subtle some may not even pick up on it.
As is the norm with Christopher Nolan he has surrounded himself with a terrific ensemble to help nail this subtlety. Due to the largely wordless script he has opted to seek out the most expressive of performers, and a mix of seasoned pros amidst the newbies. Of the experienced actors Rylance is quietly majestic, calm and collected on the surface but suffering great fears under the surface. Kenneth Branagh appears as head of the armed forces in Dunkirk and whilst given some of the more clunkier dialogue, he manages to sell it with his pained despair at the calamities he is witnessing. There is Nolan regular Cillian Murphy appearing as a cowardly wiry soldier, who manages to remain sympathetic despite his shellshock contributing to a moment of heartbreaking accidental violence. Best of all though is Tom Hardy, masked up and closed in as heroic Spitfire pilot Farrier, he uses his dynamically expressive eyes to convey oodles of character without the need for any thorough dialogue. Not to mention a chance to be given a true hero shot towards the back end of the film, bathed in sunlight and looking like a born legend, he is sickeningly photogenic.
Wisely Nolan populates the majority of the grunts with largely unknowns. Fionn Whitehead is given the closest there is a to a lead role, this is one of those rare films that understands the meaning of ensemble, as Tommy. Close to mute throughout but portraying his fortitude, desperation and quiet empathy with effortless skill. Much has been made of the decision to cast One Direction beeny bopper Harry Styles in a key role, but he more than acquits himself as a fellow soldier of brashness and confidence. One who uses it to mask deep fears about not only surviving but how disappointed his fellow Brits must be in their failed invasion. They are surrounded by a mixture of performers who do a lot with very little. It is a sign of Nolan’s confidence as a filmmaker here that he breaks almost all cinematic story convention by eschewing any semblance of a character arc. Backstories are few and far between, small talk is inessential, all that matters is how to survive. There is nuance of character available, in the performances and the actions they take, but it is never drawn attention to. It could be argued that this makes for a film lacking in personable depth, but Nolan isn’t interested in such things, he is after something far grander. The very notion of humanity’s desire to survive. After all in war, there can be no time for such frivolities as where do you come from, or who are you, all that matters is are you my friend or my enemy?
Said enemy is remarkably never seen, only their earth shattering weaponry is present. The word Nazi is not uttered once, Dunkirk choosing to make them almost an elemental threat. One that is unpredictable, faceless and oppressive. A wise choice, as frequent war movies are let down by their token need to broaden the enemy into mere generic monsters. By foregoing them entirely, beyond what their attacks do to the physical and mental wellbeing of the soldiers, it allows the POV to truly be all encompassing.
All encompassing is a pretty apt way of describing the whole piece too. The tension is unbearable throughout, Nolan keen to keep the audience as suffocated and shaken as these young men no doubt felt. It is cinema as experience, visceral to the point where it will likely overwhelm some in the crowd. This is achieved through editing, precise layered action storytelling and a aural soundscape that cuts deep. Hans Zimmer usually composes guttural base filled scores for Nolan films and here is no different. The throb of the baseline never once letting up, but rather than favour a traditional soundtrack it is instead morphed into the evocative ear shattering sound effects, to the point where score and sound become truly one.
The technical wizardry does not end there. Visually Dunkirk is utterly beautiful to behold. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema favouring rich foreboding greys interspersed with the bright almost blindingly clear aerial photography in imagery that while painterly never draws grandstanding attention to itself. This is especially true in the 70mm IMAX version I saw it in, which coincidentally is the only way you should see this film. Filmed in the format and using the expansive frame to not only envelope you completely within the situation but using the wide canvas to make close ups feel that much more emotionally potent. There is no escaping the sadness or terror in a mans eyes than when those eyes are 30ft tall. Strapping said IMAX cameras to actual Spitfire replicas gives the aerial dogfighting scenes such immediacy that you are left shell shocked. It is as close to feeling like you’re actually out there flying than any expensive simulator may portray. The way Nolan chooses his shots also feels more brazenly confident than ever, whether it is in the numerous ways he frames a sinking ship (one such shot at a triangular angle as the water tackles the drowning men is breathtaking) or the devastating double whammy of the films’ closing frames (ones that will no doubt be endlessly debated as to their meaning) he has such a control that it gives you faith as an audience member to sit back and let the images do their work.
Dunkirk has just so much to unpack that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. It is euphoric entertainment that defines what cinema is meant to be. Experiences felt on the biggest canvas possible, utilising every tool that the big screen can allow. It challenges, inspires and thrills. It is modern, and yet classical. It is mainstream yet is coated in artistry. It is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.
Verdict: Dunkirk is bleak, bold, beautiful filmmaking. A film that encapsulates a director working at the peak of his powers. See it on the biggest screen possible and remember to breathe!!