Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s first foray into the war genre and like all of the director’s highly acclaimed films, his latest creation raises the bar to a new, almost impregnable height, in one of the most visually stunning and aurally intense cinematic experiences ever put to film.
What is primarily evident in Dunkirk is its narrative structure, it doesn’t tell a story in the conventional sense but gives us a snapshot of history, shown by following three perspectives of the events over different periods of time, all converging on one moment and a single climatic crescendo.
I. The Mole – One Week: The first perspective to which we are introduced in Dunkirk, is that of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a regular British soldier, and his attempts to make it off the beach and to get home all while being shot at, bombed and half-drowned.
II. Sea – One Day: The evacuation of Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) is widely famed for the use of small civilian boats drafted in by the Royal Navy to ferry soldiers off the beach, and it is Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) who captains his own little boat, and this perspective of the film, across the Channel towards the pillar of smoke on the horizon that is Dunkirk.
III. Air – One Hour: And finally we have Farrier’s (Tom Hardy’s) aerial viewpoint from the controls of a Spitfire, en route to Dunkirk in an attempt halt the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the ships, bringing the British soldiers home.
What’s most noticeable and above all, unique about structuring the film in this manner is the way in which all of the timelines intercept and overlap with each other to meticulous detail, a feat only Nolan could pull off, which works tremendously well when you start picking up on the strings of each timeline as they start to converge on each other showing off different sides of the same coin, giving a much wider scope for the audience to become enthralled with.
The film’s biggest strength lies in its ability to build tension, seemingly without end. There is barely a moment in Dunkirk where you can take a breath or relax in your seat. Unlike most films in the genre, which cut away from the war zone to give us a glimpse of pompous generals pushing model planes and boats over a huge table-sized map, or to a soldier’s family life back home, Dunkirk never strays from the action. In effect it’s one long action set-piece, spread over the run-time of the film, with only the necessities of dialogue and exposition remaining to highlight the dire and seemingly un-survivable nature of the situation.
This intensity is set sky-high right from the start, mostly by the sound design, and it only ever increases, much like a Penrose staircase of tension. Gunshots are LOUD and ferociously pierce any brief moment of calm and the banshee-like screech of the German dive-bombers, as they plummet out of the sky, towards the beach is one of the most terrifying yet exhilarating aural experiences I’ve ever had while watching a film.
This is supported and more than built upon by the wonderfully harrowing Hans Zimmer score, with each piece of music notching up your heart rate a few beats at a time. Unlike some films of recent times, the soundtrack isn’t there as a bit of background noise. The score acts almost as another element for the characters to contend with and overcome in their bid for survival, with each moment amplifying their struggle and dragging you closer to the edge of your seat.
The director, Nolan, is famed for the visuals in his films and Dunkirk is no different, the cinematography in the film is breathtaking and highlights the horrors of war without the need for overly excessive gore. And the biggest credit must go to his desire to film as much on camera as possible to avoid ugly and unnecessary CGI additions, as it really does aid the whole experience and adds so much immersion to the film, especially when you see real Spitfires dog-fighting over the Channel.
Despite the lack of dialogue throughout the film, the cast of Dunkirk all do a spectacular job in portraying the hopelessness and fear in what they’re doing. The biggest standouts in the film have to be Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, with useful pieces of exposition here and there to help the audience along. Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson capturing the sense of duty and willingness to help as the captain of his small boat, and Harry Styles‘ Alex, yes even Harry Styles was good in this film, who’d have thought it? In an impressive debut performance, Styles captures the survival at all costs mentality, better than some full-time actors could.
Overall it has to be said that Dunkirk is one of the most unique films the war genre has ever seen and it must be right up there with some of Nolan’s best work. It’s definitely more of a cinematic experience than it is a story, by the way of the film’s limited dialogue but the sheer tension, fear and anxiety that Nolan can inspire with this film and its relatively simple premise is second to none and results in one of the best films of 2017.
Dunkirk was released in the UK on July 21, 2017