Christopher Nolan has come a long way since Following, his ultra-low budget, 70-minute long ’98 feature debut. Over his next eight films, Nolan etched himself a spot as a standout mainstream auteur, with films such as The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar pulling big dough and pleasing the critics, and smaller features such Memento and The Prestige long holding reverence among many.
And so we arrive at Dunkirk, Nolan’s tenth film. It is, of course, yet another ambitious undertaking, although it’s one that marks a bit of a change of pace from what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Grand ideas are traded in for grand technique here; a retelling of a key period in WWII that aims to put you right in the middle of it all, and succeeds in doing so.
British and Allied forces found themselves stranded in Dunkirk, France in 1940. Around 400,000 British soldiers waited for an evacuation, with Nazis behind them, U-boats in the ocean in front of them, and bombs dropping from above.
Nolan, who also scripted the film, focuses on three different perspectives: those on the land, those on the sea, and those in the air. Seeing as this is, put simply, one giant re-enactment, the overall narrative is quite straightforward. That being said, pay close attention to the on-screen time-stamps as we are introduced to these perspectives – there are temporal shifts a-plenty, and while these jumps occasionally cause confusion as to when exactly things are supposed to be occurring, Nolan ensures you’ll have it figured out nicely as the finale hits home.
The lead character among the ensemble is Tommy, played brilliantly by newcomer Fionn Whitehead. The film doesn’t waste a second, and it doesn’t take long before we’re panting alongside Tommy as he runs for his life through the streets of Dunkirk. Once on the beach, within minutes the aerial monsters are swinging around, readying to drop death on the men below. The incredibly potent sound design will bang those eardrums as you’re immersed into the moment, dropping to the sand alongside thousands as the deafening Stukas swoop in. And so the tone is set, and it doesn’t let up from here.
Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden lead the aerial perspective as determined Royal Air Force pilots, while Mark Rylance is among those on the water, playing one of the many civilians who took their own boats across the sea in response to Winston Churchill’s request for help. There are no false notes among the extended cast, which also includes Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy and a solid debut from One Direction alum Harry Styles.
On a sensory and technical level, Dunkirk is a thing of delirious genius. There was a clear effort to do as much “in camera” as possible, as the usual reliance on CG is pushed to the side for huge crowds of extras, real planes and real boats. To throw in an overused word: it’s epic. Nolan pulled out all the stops to create an immersive experience, and he gathered the perfect team to help him do so.
Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Interstellar, Spectre) shot on IMAX 65 mm and 65 mm large format film stock, and it’s more than evident. The film is visually spectacular, filled with moments that warrant the search for the biggest screen and best audio arrangement you can find. Plus, cutting up the visuals to mathematical precision is Nolan’s longtime collaborator, Aussie editor Lee Smith (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar).
And then there’s legendary composer Hans Zimmer, who delivers an absolutely outstanding, deeply effective, anxiety-inducing score. Nolan and Zimmer have worked well together before (Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar), but this may just be their most accomplished effort as a duo. The score is often terrifying, driving up the fear and tension to near unbearable levels, working perfectly in sync with Nolan’s direction. It’s a fascinating dance, a score that dictates so perfectly what’s on screen and vice versa.
While there is clearly plenty of praise that needs to be directed at Dunkirk, alas, there is an element that was left wanting – at least for this writer. While Nolan nails the ‘you are there’ experience he wants to deliver, the characters, unfortunately, aren’t given enough depth to provide the emotional gravitas certain scenes require, particularly towards the final act. Nolan’s determination to keep things grounded and not inject movie-isms is admirable, but that angle may be a touch too rigid here. Once the credits roll, it’s hard to feel as though you really knew anyone or cared for them past the gruelling situations we saw them in. The film does have emotional impact – you’d be a cold soul indeed if some of these situations didn’t move you – but it’s left more on surface value, when a few more personal attachments could have worked wonders.
Still, the characters we do get are varied and completely convincing. There is no one right way to act in a war; who can truly say that running away is an act of cowardice, or that fighting is bravery, without being in the situation themselves? War is hell, and men react differently to the flames. A quick special mention must go to Nolan’s decision not to pour on the gore and violence; the battles here are tragic, intense and in-your-face regardless.
Dunkirk is a striking, impressive cinematic effort from one of the best in the biz. While the characterisation is a little too thin, the experience is nevertheless immersive. Nolan and his team have crafted a near magnificent war picture that will transport you to a period that you won’t, nor should you ever, forget.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10