Christopher Nolan. A name synonymous with an intellectual cinema, an emphasis on practicality and a desire to push the boundaries of what contemporary filmmaking could and should accomplish. With a filmography that boasts the reality-bending Inception and temporally-inverted Memento, it was no wonder that many, including myself, eagerly anticipated the announcement of his next project.
Said project comes in the form of Dunkirk, a realistic re-imagining of the decisive events of the World War II campaign within France that almost ended in disaster for the British army. Stranded on the beaches of the eponymous French city, over 400,000 confused and terrified British and French soldiers are left waiting for rescue from across the channel, and it is in their psychological and physical struggle that Nolan is most interested.
And what success Nolan has had in portraying that struggle. Dunkirk may well be his finest film yet, and coming off of the larger-than-life odyssey that is Interstellar, has enabled Nolan to return to a more grounded, primal sense of filmmaking.
First and foremost, Dunkirk demands the biggest screen you can find. Filmed with IMAX cameras, courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and featuring an electric sound design supervised by Richard King that almost acts as its own character, the experience of Dunkirk is nerve-shattering. From the deafening screams of the German dive bombers, to the shocking emergency of bullets ricocheting off metal and wood as our heroes’ endeavour to escape what seems an inevitable fate, all is enhanced by technical efficiency that envelops the audience in the scenario. Don’t be surprised to see your fellow filmgoers reaching for their eyes and ears as the action proceeds, this is a new kind of realism that has reinvigorated the experience of watching a film in the confines of the cinema.
In addition to the sound design and cinematography, Hans Zimmer’s score adds another layer of dramatic detail to proceedings. Rather than bring itself to the foreground of the action, it settles into the DNA of the narrative thrust, characterising moments and adding great intensity to the already fraught action. Utilising the foundational sound of a ticking clock for a number of its tracks, and using instruments such as the violin to flesh out this sound and give it a deeply unnerving undertone, it creates a momentum that informs the limited time that these men on the beach have to escape their unwanted fate.
What’s more, the characterisation of Dunkirk’s numerous protagonists is stirringly subdued and subtle. The dialogue is minimal here, revealing the most minute of expository details: what lines are given are usually there to flesh out the realistic depiction of warfare, with orders being thrown and options being debated. Instead, for the majority of its runtime, its characters and their performers are asked to provide a lot with a little, using their physicality to convey emotion during times where words aren’t enough for expression. In a time where film’s spell out their characters’ histories and feelings, Nolan instead presents us with a situation that does the talking. We identify with Fionn Whitehead’s young soldier Tommy, for example, because of the relentless advance of the enemy upon the shores of Dunkirk. He’s put through the mill but in minor moments, displays his loyalty to his inner humanity: in a wonderfully moving scene devoid of any dialogue, Tommy helps a fellow soldier bury a deceased comrade, taking a sip from his tankard and acknowledging the sentimental moment in a way that doesn’t exploit us of tears, but shakes us to the core.
It’s in this understated development of character that many of the film’s famous faces really shine as talents to be admired. Mark Rylance provides a formidable prudency to his civilian mariner Mr Dawson, who sets out with Tom Glynn-Carney’s Peter and Barry Keoghan’s George to rescue whatever survivors they can find and fit upon their small vessel. Cillian Murphy delicately explores the emotional horrors of shellshock in his unidentified role of a shivering soldier, respecting those who have suffered the same psychological traumas. And Tom Hardy again proves himself as a superlative acting talent in his role as Farrier, a Spitfire pilot tackling the Luftwaffe as it looms over the beaches of Dunkirk: covered by a mask, Hardy’s only performance tool is his eyes, yet he effortlessly displays supreme courage and sincerity in moments of dire decision-making.
All of these aspects pulsate within the veins of a narrative that is characteristically unconventional in its structure. Fluctuating between land, sea and air perspectives, each follows a different time structure: land is a week, sea is a day and air is an hour. However, all run adjacent to one another and intersect at certain points within the story. What this amounts to is a tremendous flow of suspense, as characters’ fates are revealed and seemingly reversed within the next frame, leading us to fear for their every move. Time is irrelevant in a situation such as this anyway. Regardless of a week, a day or an hour, the fear and terror that confronts the men involved is penetrating and you’ll feel it as they do, your pulse racing to Zimmer’s score and the breathlessness of its characters.
Ultimately, Dunkirk could have played it safe. Following the somewhat overambitious Interstellar, Nolan may well have conformed to the basics and crafted a fine and honest action blockbuster. However, Nolan stays true to his boundary-pushing form. Dunkirk redefines what it means to depict war. It refuses to glorify bloodshed, instead valuing the concentrated, emotional intensity of the circumstances instead. Furthermore, it is a succinct and subtle story that respects the audience’s intellect and ability to read the situation, feel the characters’ motivations and internal sentiments. And overall, it is a hopeful picture, treasuring the heroism of these men who were faced with an uphill struggle like no other experienced since. It’s a tale of a country coming to the aid of its countrymen, with sacrifices sustained and minds battered, left clearly bruised as the film goes on, but all imbued with an unyielding spirit to protect those who were in need.
In that, Dunkirk is overwhelmingly successful, a true contemporary masterpiece: innovative, relentless and unparalleled.