Acclaimed auteur Christopher Nolan returns to conduct a triumphant tour-de-force through one of the proudest moments in British history – and to make his best film yet.
If you were to line up Christopher Nolan’s entire filmography to date and then try to spot one that is not like all the others, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to point out Dunkirk. Nolan is a director perhaps best known for the blockbuster smash hits Inception, Interstellar, and the first two movies in his Batman series – pulse-pounding action films replete with thrills and spills. Dunkirk, however, gladly puts such conventions to bed. It is hardly a typical war movie, and in fact, the only reason it would be classified as such is its roots in the Battle of Dunkirk – a brilliantly-executed civilian-aided evacuation of Allied troops who had been stranded on the French beaches of Dunkerque. The thrills it boasts unspool slowly and steadily, until the tension is so palpable that it’s almost a physical presence in the cinema. Nor does Dunkirk contain any sort of grappling with higher intellectual concepts, as Nolan did with Interstellar (to mixed reviews). With Dunkirk, Nolan has crafted more than just a film; more than just a simple set-piece suspense thriller or a nostalgia-driven war movie. It is a different kind of beast altogether, and undoubtedly, it is Nolan’s most powerful offering yet.
Dunkirk lives up to its true potential as both a faithful and respectful account of wartime history, and as a riveting thriller that tears through the conventions of the genre itself
Dunkirk unfolds through three different interlocking narratives, told from the land, sea, and air. On the land, the film follows Tommy, a young British private desperate to get home, who eventually teams up with two other soldiers, Gibson and Alex, to find a way off the beaches. Meanwhile, answering the call to aid the stranded soldiers (amongst many other civilians) are pleasureboat owner Mr Dawson, his son Peter, and a local boy, George, who is eager to prove himself. Miles overhead, Royal Air Force pilots Farrier and Collins are tasked with picking off the enemy bombers targeting Dunkerque, to buy the British rescue boats more time. Each of these narratives are fraught with their own perils from the get-go. Tommy seems doomed to meet his death on the Dunkerque sands as the British evacuation effort is thwarted time and again by German bombers. Tragedy strikes on Mr Dawson’s boat after the rescue of a shivering, shell-shocked soldier results in a brutal altercation. And in the air, Farrier’s ace piloting is plagued by a faulty fuel gage as the enemy close in on all sides. These three stories weave in and around each other to make Dunkirk a masterpiece in suspense – Nolan masterfully switches between narratives much like a novel ends its chapters on cliffhangers, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats as they are left wondering how each strand of the story will continue. You may go in knowing how the Battle of Dunkirk ends, but the strength of Nolan’s writing and editing is such that you could actually be convinced that history has somehow rewritten itself so that there may be no happy endings.
Writing aside, Dunkirk’s most ingenious element by far is how it successfully manages to sacrifice character development for the sake of crafting a grand, sweeping account of events. Tommy, Farrier, and Mr Dawson are only figureheads; representatives for their kind as a whole – the beleaguered, weary men stranded at Dunkerque; the civilians rushing to their aid, and the Air Force pilots whose daring dogfights saved more than a few lives. It makes no difference that we do not see much of Tommy’s past or future beyond the events in Dunkirk; fleshing out his character becomes of secondary concern to the audience as the most pressing issue is immediately clear – whether or not he will make it out of France alive. There is no kitschy nostalgia on hand as in most modern war movies; no sappy flashbacks to a romantic interest or doting family waiting back in Britain. Even the dialogue in the film is used sparingly (this is Nolan’s shortest screenplay to date), and the camaraderie between characters is rarely expanded on. “The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from,” said Nolan himself. “The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?” The latter question is what makes Dunkirk remain so compelling through its 100 minute runtime. The Battle of Dunkirk itself is the driving force behind the film; it is the sole focus of both the filmmaker and the viewer. By discarding the trappings of sentimentalism (which makes up most other critically acclaimed war movies, such as Hacksaw Ridge), Dunkirk lives up to its true potential as both a faithful and respectful account of wartime history, and as a riveting thriller that tears through the conventions of the genre itself.
there are other ways to demonstrate the atrocities and tragedies that a war can hold, and Dunkirk is a masterclass in such via the art of subtlety – which can cut deeper than a knife
Dunkirk would not be the tour-de-force it is without Hans Zimmer’s spectacular score, either. While plenty of credit is due to Nolan for the flesh and bones of Dunkirk, it is Zimmer’s score that dresses it up in full regalia. The soundtrack to Dunkirk is by far the best accompaniment to any Nolan movie (and perhaps even any movie at all), playing out like a huge uncut orchestral score constructed around the film itself. While Dunkirk’s score does not have a single, stand-out piece on it, unlike Inception (which spawned ‘Time’, the most memorable Zimmer composition to date) and Interstellar, Zimmer’s alternation between quivering strings and booming, guttural percussion goes hand in hand with every occasion, from the bleak scenes of desperation on the beaches to the tense dogfights that Farrier engages in.
In fact, Dunkirk is both a visual and aural spectacle – combining Zimmer’s score with regular Nolan collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema’s lush, swooping cinematography proves to be a winning collaboration once again. The scenes in themselves are evocative of either the grand scale of Dunkirk’s events, or the toll that war takes on individuals. One moment, we see a wide-angle shot of the troops on the mole who look no bigger than ants; desperate, filthy, and beaten down. The next moment, perhaps a close up of a pale hand reaching through the murky depths of a flooded ship, flailing desperately for purchase on a ladder only to jerk to a halt as another man drowns. Initial speculation about Dunkirk from naysayers included the much-cited criticism that PG-13 war movies never accurately showcase the horrors of war. But there are other ways to demonstrate the atrocities and tragedies that a war can hold, and Dunkirk is a masterclass in such via the art of subtlety – which can cut deeper than a knife.
Relentlessly thrilling and unforgivingly tense, it is a triumphant ode to how Britain escaped one of her darkest hours
The acting talent present on Dunkirk was also astonishing. For a movie sparse on dialogue, body language and expression was key, and Nolan’s cast certainly did not disappoint. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead was excellent as Tommy, his earnest nature apparent in Whitehead’s ever move. Harry Styles, too, gave a surprisingly spirited performance as impulsive private Alex, and his ferocity in a pivotal scene was bone-chilling. Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh deserve honourable mentions too – Murphy’s role as the Shivering Soldier was a convincing, highly empathetic portrayal of a PTSD-stricken pilot, while Branagh exhibited plenty of panache as Commander Bolton, an increasingly anxious officer overseeing the evacuation. But the best performance amidst this already star-studded cast belongs without a question to Tom Hardy as the initially nonchalant pilot Farrier, whose stoic bravado later heart-breakingly gives way to a quiet resignation as the film comes to an end.
All in all, Dunkirk is a film that even the biggest Nolan-sceptic would struggle to find flaws with. Relentlessly thrilling and unforgivingly tense, it is a triumphant ode to how Britain escaped one of her darkest hours, and a top-rank example of what filmmaking should be. “We shall go on to the end,” proclaimed Winston Churchill, in his famous speech to the Commons immediately following the Allied evacuation. “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be… we shall never surrender.” And much like the legacy of the battle itself, I have no doubt that Dunkirk will endure as one of the best films that the decade, if not the century, will have to offer.
Image: Warner Brothers