Very few other filmmakers working today are as intrigued by time and its workings as Christopher Nolan, and none are as good at integrating this fascination with the sort of bombastic excitement that he so consistently delivers. With his war epic, Dunkirk, Nolan strikes the perfect balance between his typically clever treatment of time’s relationship with stories and a heart on sleeve disaster film, paying tribute to the heroes and survivors of the Miracle of Dunkirk. It’s his shortest film since his 1998 debut, Following, and his first non-sci-fi film in over a decade but no less ambitious for it, entering the canon as possibly Nolan’s best film and one of the greatest examples of the World War 2 genre.
Telling the story of the 1940 evacuation of British troops from France after a series of crushing defeats by the Germans, Dunkirk wastes no time on high-level politics, generals pushing models around maps, or worried loved ones at home. Instead, it plunges us directly into the chaos with minimal exposition or context, slowly and intuitively feeding information to the audience through its ingenious central conceit. Covering three fronts of the evacuation, each over a different timescale – one week on land, one day at sea, and one hour in the air – Nolan trusts the audience to piece together the timeline of this non-linear story themselves.
It allows us to experience events from multiple perspectives and not only is it hugely satisfying to witness these strands coalescing, but the large ensemble this technique demands means no single player dominates the film. Fionn Whitehead is the soul of the movie as the aptly named Tommy, trying to get from France’s beaches back to England, but he doesn’t get anywhere near as many lines as Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain or Harry Styles as nervous soldier Alex. Meanwhile, it’s Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot, Farrier, who carries the most obvious ‘hero’ moments, with Kenneth Branagh on Admiral Exposition duties.
Everyone matters here, and the age-appropriate casting of the foot soldiers both avoids the problem of overly distracting star actors (Harry Styles blends in brilliantly, all fears of stunt casting proving unfounded) and hammers home how tragically young the casualties were. All the kids put in excellent performances, balancing terror, guilt, hope, and towering courage, and the talismanic older actors are superb. Hardy spends the vast majority of his screen time with nothing but his eyes exposed, and even they are obscured by flight goggles, but you still feel the weight of his fear and his duty.
If you absolutely had to pick Dunkirk’s lead, it would most likely be the bone-shaking sound. Hans Zimmer’s tremendous, piercing score blends with the constant din of battle for an auditory experience that borders on outright aggressive. If there’s a scarier noise this year in film than the scream of a German dive bomber making its approach to a target, then it will probably send me running for the cinema exits. You’ll end up fearing the skies as much as the soldiers on screen, and this confused fright is compounded by Nolan’s decision to keep the enemy off in the distance, keeping the audience in the gut-wrenching dark.
From the moment the first bullet is fired, not only does the sound keep up a deafening roar until the end (there is about a minute of quiet late on, haunting and soothing in equal measure), but the tension is so powerful that it made me eventually take suspense-induced nausea for granted. Occasional respite from the desperation only makes its return that much more devastating, and Dunkirk is definitive proof that you don’t need gore to make a war movie intense. In IMAX, which Dunkirk demands to be seen in, its bombing runs on ships and German sniper assaults have the same knock-your-teeth-out power as anything in the far more gruesome Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge.
Extraordinary visuals complement the sound work, at some points aiming at (and achieving) full immersion, at others creating indelible cinematic images. A capsizing boat is horribly visceral (and the offscreen sounds of the dying are about as distressing as any visuals could be), but Nolan knows exactly when to pull back. DOP Hoyte van Hoytema crafts a surreal moment as room after room of a warship fill with water horizontally, and the scene in which the civilian boats arrive in France is tremendously moving.
It’s profoundly cathartic, and the sight of a fleeing Destroyer packed to the gills with armed troops cheering on small yachts heading into the fire is a distinctly British triumph. Everything on land and sea looks phenomenal, but the finest technical display is saved for the air. As has been much publicised, Nolan had as much of the flying as possible done for real in actual WW2-era planes, adding an incomparable level of authenticity to the long shots of the dogfights, and the view from the cockpit is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Hoytema makes the English Channel look as infinite as any of the space-scapes in Interstellar, and the aerial battles capture that same virtuoso sense of humanity reaching for the impossible as the first launch of the ship in Nolan’s previous film, only this time with machine guns. When Farrier gets a moment of peace to simply glide over the battle, it’s a shot so beautiful and serene that I gasped out loud, an involuntary physical response to Dunkirk finally giving its characters and its audience a moment to breathe.
It’s incredibly rare that a film comes along that changes the way you look at its genre, but that’s exactly what Dunkirk has done with World War 2 movies. It’s intimate and epic, mastering the sound of war like almost nothing else ever made, brutally intense with minimal blood, and utterly, brilliantly British. There’s no US box office-friendly American accents to be found here, Nolan wisely opting for an authentic and worthy hymn to the bravery of the men who turned what could have been Britain’s last stand into one of war history’s most inspiring stories. Already in 2017 we’ve had Their Finest tackling the subject of Dunkirk, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour later this year will tell the story from Churchill’s point of view, and Ridley Scott is preparing a quasi-sequel in the form of a Battle of Britain movie. Nolan’s take renders all these challengers redundant with a spectacular display of talent from the best blockbuster filmmaker since Spielberg.