★★★★★ – “A thrilling, terrifying, edge-of-your-seat experience.”
Dunkirk is written & directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles and Damien Bonnard.
Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II. (12A cert; 106 mins)
To withhold such gravitating tension whilst showing very little of the enemy is a tremendous achievement in suspenseful filmmaking. Christopher Nolan gives us no introduction, no story to back the characters, yet we feel a great sense of terror. To approach the war epic in a completely new and unique way was entirely predictable of Nolan, in no bad sense. We’ve seen the bloody side of war many times before, so to have a picture that relies less on gore and explicit violence is refreshing. Dunkirk is not your typical war film, this is a story of survival. A terrifying document of Operation Dynamo from three distinct perspectives; Land, Sea and Air.
The film opens momentarily with our first lead, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), walking down a desolate backstreet in France as the Germans drop the infamous “We Surround You” posters overhead. Clutching them, Tommy begins to run to the beaches as Germans open fire. The first shot on the beaches of Dunkirk in glorious IMAX 15/70mm film is beautiful but harrowing. In its huge scale, we see troops lined up, preparing to depart. Then we cut to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of many sailors willing to aid the troops trapped in Dunkirk. Alongside is Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), two brave young men who voluntarily partake in one of the most heroic missions of all time. Finally, we see pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) up in the air, flying towards the beaches, picking off enemy aircraft. It’s worth noting that these events weren’t occurring so closely in time. Many of the troops were trapped on the beaches for a week, the events on the sea happened in a single day, and the spitfires were carrying fuel lasting a mere hour. But in true Nolan style, he brings these historical events into one singular telling, and provides a constant, edge-of-your-seat experience.
It’s very difficult to pick out any highlights from the incredible cast, because of how truly equal they were, but if I must; Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead were the most memorable. They all delivered gripping, relatable performances that really connected with me. That said, everyone else surrounding them were just as compelling. Tom Hardy has some fantastic action sequences, which are captured with remarkable skill, attaching IMAX cameras to the wings of planes, using them as if a GoPro. Harry Styles, in his debut acting role, is presented with some difficult lines to deliver, and performs surprisingly well. He, as any other, is strong and convincing. As aforementioned, I could list every performer and discuss how brilliant they were, but to round it up; Dunkirk has one hell of a cast. They all bring something great to their performances and without any major background, still manage to provide the connection required.
Using real naval destroyers, a Spitfire plane and up to 62 ships (many of which were used for Operation Dynamo) – and shooting on IMAX 65mm, standard 65mm and presented on IMAX 15/70mm – Christopher Nolan once again proves he is one of the greatest directors working today. This is his most experimental film, and an engrossing masterpiece at that. Teaming up with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema for their second project following Interstellar in 2014, Dunkirk is a stunning example of how film provides a more vivid, clear and crisp picture compared to digital. If you can, see this on film. It adds a grittiness not present in any digital presentation; I highly recommend the BFI IMAX in London.
Amongst all of the wonderful things about Dunkirk, and Nolan’s work in general since The Dark Knight Rises, there is always something that I’ve disliked; the sound mix. This is not to be confused with sound design, which I’ve always found impressive in his films, and here it’s a work of art in itself. But, the levels are sky-rocketing, a loudness in which quality is lost through distortion. It’s an ear-piercing experience, perhaps the result they were aiming for, which makes perfect sense, given the events of the film. However, some of Hans Zimmer’s score is hidden underneath this layer of force, as well as the small amount of dialogue.
Speaking of the score; Zimmer’s work has a biting energy throughout, utilising Nolan’s own pocket watch ticking as a constant reminder of the enemy nearby. I could wish for more emotional substance, however there’s very little time for it, and his rework of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” has a charming presence in the third act, an excellent culmination of the score and picture.
Dunkirk is huge in scale, but the way in which it’s captured presents an up-close and personal documentation of the bravery of the individuals who were trapped on the beaches, the heroes on the sea, and the fighters in the air. This is Christopher Nolan’s next masterpiece, and a film that should be viewed in the highest format available to you.
Verdict; Dunkirk is without a doubt, one of the most suspenseful films in years. An increasing tension in picture and score that provides a truly thrilling and terrifying experience.
Dunkirk – ★★★★★ (9/10)
[format watched; IMAX 15/70mm]