Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk tells the story of the 400,000 soldiers who were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk during World War Two, facing enemy fire from the skies and from enemy soldiers advancing on their position. During this time, civilian boats journey there to help rescue soldiers and allied pilots defend them from the skies above.
Rather than simply being a standard war film, Nolan puts his own unique spin on things by using a three-pronged approach, showing events that took place over a certain number of hours through three separate sections – essentially land, sea and air. Additionally, these sections are told in a non-sequential order, showing the separate sections in three different places in the timeline, eventually converging to a clever, satisfying extent. I have to admit that this non-linear storyline was a little discombobulating at first, it took me a few seconds to wrap my head around the whole 1 week/1day/1hour approach, wondering why it suddenly changed from night to day, but it never at all feels gimmicky and this unique approach to storytelling ensures that this is a Nolan film through and through; there is definite logic to it and it sure keeps things interesting.
And rather than being a war film that is primarily focused on the fighting, Dunkirk‘s main focus is on survival and the struggle to get the soldiers home, rather than fighting the enemy. It also avoids being overly-patriotic or emotionally manipulative – certain soldiers even act selfishly or turn on each other due to paranoia and suspicion. And even in parts where it looks like the film is in danger of running out of steam, Nolan always appears to have something up his sleeve and often surprises us with an unexpected event, most prominently for me it was the oil-on-the-water moment.
Dunkirk is undeniably an extremely well put together film and from a technical standpoint, it is essentially flawless and ticks all the necessary boxes. Reuniting with Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, this film is an incredibly immersive experience and the visuals are often awe-inspiring, especially during the aerial dogfights which boast some vast, expansive views on the seemingly never-ending ocean. And on a similar note, the camerawork associated with the aerial battles is top-notch; the constant tumbling and turning combined with the IMAX cameras attached to the wing and the first-person viewpoints, looking through Tom Hardy’s targeting reticle, makes the film truly immersive and effortlessly lets you get lost in the film’s many battle sequences.
Dunkirk uses practical effects to a remarkable standard; it’s certainly refreshing to see a summer blockbuster with nary a CGI segment to be found and at the end of the day, the film is so real: a grounded, realistic endeavour helmed by a director with admirable passion and commitment to “proper” filmmaking. It’s also laudable that even though many scenes are quite frantic, and one particular dark scene takes place at night, you always know what’s going on and there’s no overuse (if there even is any) of “shakycam” or rapid, quick fire edits.
As you might expect from a Christopher Nolan film, there’s a Hans Zimmer score and, surprise surprise, it’s excellent. Making special uses of a ticking pocket watch (Nolan’s own, so I’ve read) and numerous rapid heartbeat sounds, Zimmer’s string heavy accompaniment is ever present and keeps the tension on a knife edge, often letting the music build and build and build until it’s almost unbearable. Plus, the sound design/editing is crisp and you truly feel the vibrations during all the artillery fire, bombardments and Spitfire battles.
Making use of a few Nolan regulars, the ensemble cast performs well, with Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy probably being the standouts. As you’d expect, Rylance’s performance is subtle and dignified as he plays the civilian who sees it as his duty to help those trapped at Dunkirk, occasionally getting uncertain and conflicted. And impressively, Tom Hardy nearly steals the whole show with essentially just a few eye movements and about ten lines of dialogue, often from behind his flight mask. Maybe it’s just because his character was in the most impressive scenes but, insanely talented actor that he is, Hardy does so much with so little and clearly, a Nolan/Hardy collaboration is something to behold.
And what do you know? Despite my initial fears, Harry Styles doesn’t ruin the whole thing and is actually alright in his role.
But despite the technical brilliance of the film, I can’t help but feel as though there’s something missing from Dunkirk. Even though Nolan puts his own unique spin on things, I don’t think that Dunkirk actually has that good of a story and the characters, while most probably very true-to-life, aren’t that memorable or film worthy. At the end of the day, one can appreciate the directorial style, the music, the cinematography and the undeniable devotion to the subject matter, but I think that in time, Dunkirk may very well be remembered for its surface rather than its substance.
Told in a unique, Nolan-esque style, Dunkirk is an immersive, passionate, gripping film with impeccable design and a nail-biting soundtrack.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Aaaand no, Cillian Murphy doesn’t have a bag over his head in this one.
Aaaaand Nolan’s lucky charm Michael Caine does in fact make an uncredited cameo appearance as a voice on a radio. So that makes seven Nolan/Caine collaborations.
Aaaaaand there’s also a character played by a young Welsh actor named Aneurin Barnard. Who I mention because we went to the same theatre group back in the day. At the same time. Just sayin’ . . . 😉