Set in the heart of World War II in June 1940, Dunkirk tells of the desperate evacuation of nearly 400, 000 Allied soldiers stuck on the eponymous French beach, with the Axis at their backs and the cold and unforgiving salt-frothed English channel in front of them. With Allied forces being withdrawn to England to defend against the inevitable German blitz, soldiers had to rely on either their own frantic efforts or a motley flotilla of private boats piloted by concerned citizens puttering across the channel to their rescue as the German Luftwaffe engaged the British RAF overhead.
A frugal opening text gives the briefest of explanations as to the hows and whys of this situation – writer/director Christopher Nolan is mostly uninterested in the grander politics of it all. No, he’s here to glue rear-ends to seats as their owners gnaw their fingernails to the quick, and in this endeavour, he succeeds wildly.
Now you may not know this about me, but I studied art for many years. I can still remember my brother once seeing me read up on Picasso’s Bull’s Head, a found object art-piece consisting of nothing but an old bicycle seat and handlebars stuck together to resemble a bovine skull. “Pfft,” he admonished. “Anybody can do that!”. But “anybody” didn’t do that. Picasso did. His inspiration to “do that” is what makes it such a great piece of art.
Dunkirk stands as sort of a rough anti-corollary to this type of thinking. It’s undoubtedly also a great piece of art, but one that could not have been made by just “anybody”. Nolan’s very DNA is so indelibly etched into every scene, that nobody else could have produced this film. This isn’t a WWII movie directed by Christopher Nolan so much as it is a Christopher Nolan movie set in WWII. And for the most part, this is a very, very good thing.
A certain back-breaking Batman movie aside, the acclaimed filmmaker’s filmography is a study in excellence. And all of it was seemingly just practice. Dunkirk is the realization of all Nolan’s filmmaking ambitions as he engineers this cinematic marvel using techniques he honed to a keen edge on previous projects. You have the sobering silence of Insomnia, as his script is a sparsely dialogued affair; newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard, as young soldiers Tommy and Gibson, barely speak a word to each other throughout the film. There’s the unconventional approach to narrative chronology of Memento and The Prestige, as the filmmaker tells the story simultaneously from three different perspectives – the land, the sea, and the air – all set at different times. It’s a seemingly daunting approach, prone to confusion with events layered on top of events, but much like with Inception, godly editing makes sure that everything maintains dramatic cohesion.
Nolan also ropes in some former collaborators, and just like he did on the Dark Knight Trilogy, composer Hans Zimmer constantly ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels with a ticking clock motif and subvocalized strings that never ever seem to let up. Throughout all of this cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, reteaming with Nolan after Interstellar, fills the screen with sweeping widescreen shots, filming the sudsy, windswept beaches in muted, austere colours to give it an almost alien appearance. And just for good measure to really prove my theory that Nolan’s entire career has been building up to this moment, he even has a muffled, mask-wearing Tom Hardy spouting barely intelligible dialogue as his RAF pilot Farrier engages in a protracted dogfight. It’s all Nolan, all the time. And all of it is meticulously masterful.
Particularly, the overlapping storylines – by having the dramatic peaks across multiple timelines sync up with pinpoint precision, Nolan ensures that there’s a never a lull in the tension to be found here. It’s edge of your seat, seat of your pants stuff from the word go. We know the broad strokes of how this situation was resolved, but the moment-to-moment dramatics is still thrilling as hell. And when Dunkirk hits its final, emotional climax, there’s a palpable exhalation of relief – not just from the audience, but the film itself.
It’s also an ending that I initially felt comes too soon. Barring his first privately funded project Following, at 106 minutes Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film. I got so used to these two-hour plus epics from the director that there was a sense of “is that it?” as the credits rolled. But then I realized that it’s a credit to Dunkirk’s unrelenting pace that those 106 minutes had just flown by so rapidly.
But as masterful as Nolan’s WWII potboiler is, it’s not without some flaws. Paradoxically, the most noticeable of these is actually also a boon. Nolan’s aversion to CGI is well documented, and the filmmaker brilliantly stages the often times cataclysmic events during the evacuation of Dunkirk as full practical stunts. Real dogfights with real planes, real ships trying to sink each other. The effect is incredible, as you’re fully immersed into the spectacle.
But without the use of digital trickery to buff up the numbers, you never get a proper appreciation of the full scale of events. It never feels like there are 400 000 people on that grim beach. The makeshift fleet of private vessels coming to rescue them seem to only be enough to maybe help a few thousand in a tight squeeze. It’s something you don’t easily notice in the moment though, as Nolan is always snatching your breath away with the next bit of suspense.
Thanks to this headlong barrelling along though, the characters are also a little threadbare. The aforementioned Whitehead is technically the lead, and takes up the most screen time, but his character remains a cypher throughout. Mark Rylance, as a concerned British citizen skippering his sailboat across the channel with his son and another young boy to help out the troops, gets the meatiest role, comparatively. It’s actually not much but the Oscar-winning actor still excels tremendously. So too Cillian Murphy, as a shell-shocked soldier found by Rylance adrift in the sea, and Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles from One Direction), as a boisterous trooper, do fantastic work with the little they’re given.
Despite Nolan not really engaging in too much Union Jack flag-waving, I’m certain the British audiences will get a particularly patriotic kick out of Dunkirk. Other audiences will more than likely get kicked too, but it’s mostly just back in their seats as this unrelentingly thrilling, uniquely engineered, fantastically acted piece of art keeps you gripped from start to finish. Expect to hear the name Dunkirk a lot come Oscar night.
Last Updated: July 28, 2017