Dunkirk is the best film so far this year – a gripping, intense experience expertly crafted by Christopher Nolan, perfectly utilising music, sound and editing for a fever pitch of terror and tension.
In 1940, Allied soldiers retreat to the French coastal town of Dunkirk for evacuation ahead of overwhelming Nazi forces. On the beach, on the sea and in the air, British forces desperately weather this storm to get as many out as they can. Soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles – yes, REALLY) struggle to get off the beach and to safety; in the air, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) tries to give the escaping forces a chance; and civilian sailors including Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) race across the Channel in a last-ditch attempt to help.
Chances are you’ve heard of the evacuation, or are aware of it – suffice to say, Churchill himself noted of the event that war is not won with evacuations! There’s no question however that the incredible number saved (and the way disparate Brits came together) helped reinforce national unity and consciousness of the conflict. The movie goes a long, long way to helping the audience feel the hopelessness and sheer horror of the situation, and the screw-tightening pressure of escape as others meet a brutal end.
Nolan’s script strips the movie of any hero, villain or stereotypes, to paint as naturalistic a picture as he can. It’s not a question of one man or one group, but the collective effort in this monumental undertaking, and the director’s decision pays huge dividends. What we have is a war film like no other, with little shared conflict. Instead, Allied forces are pummelled, blown up, chased and are completely at the mercy of the encroaching Germans, who we never see.
It only deepens the isolation, panic and terror of the soldiers, and as the movie proceeds this only becomes more so. Nolan’s movies often play with time (see Memento, Inception and most recently Interstellar), and this is no different – three separate timelines, all converging on the same moment but measured in a week, a day and an hour, snowball together into a fantastic conclusion.
This precision and intricacy is peak Nolan, and it’s one of those rare films where everything comes together in service of the experience. There’s very little dialogue, but the stark and unforgettable imagery, and the facial expressions of the talented cast, do more than enough to fill the gaps.
The editing by Lee Smith expertly threads together the disparate narratives, and much like Inception, helps to build the film’s events into a crescendo that unfurls into that excellent, cathartic ending section. Hoyte van Hoytema’s lighting meanwhile utilises cold blues, greys and pale whites (matching typical channel weather) for a grim, colour-starved, drab and desolate look.
The excellent, bone-shaking action dovetails with the editing, hitting home because it’s all as real as Nolan and his budget can make it: boats sinking, planes dogfighting and immense explosions accentuating the realism. Strapping cameras to surviving Spitfires presents perhaps the best aerial dogfights seen onscreen, and I didn’t notice any CGI, which for a huge modern movie is both remarkable and exciting – improving that feeling of verisimilitude.
The incredible tension begins with a ticking clock that remains on the soundtrack throughout, and this is coupled with unbelievable levels of sound that assault you as they would have the soldiers. Whether the unearthly pitching whine of a descending fighter, pounding gunfire or concussive explosions, Nolan’s soundscape is a huge part of this creeping and uncomfortable pressure.
Hans Zimmer’s remarkable soundtrack utilises the Shepard tone, whereby the illusion of an ever-increasing pitch is produced to truly turn the screw, and this score is unrelentingly bombastic when it needs to be, or lurking in the background ready to strike. The latter stages see it all reach a huge peak before a welcome release into a very clever re-working of Elgar’s Nimrod, and many parts of the score reinforce memorable scenes that linger afterwards.
As there’s so little dialogue, it’s left to the actors to utilise expressions amid the panic and conflict. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s distinctive features are one of our main windows into the situation and its effect on the young men, and he does an excellent job of embodying the beaten, desperate and cowed ‘tommy’ (even sharing their name). Much to my surprise, Harry Styles is very, very good as the more talkative and conflicted Alex, another type of soldier perhaps more strongly motivated to do whatever it takes to get home.
Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy bring acting class as the sailor and the pilot, managing to present depths of emotion, fear and drive in mere expressions (Rylance with his creased features, and Hardy with only his eyes!). They play different and driven men at separate angles of the situation, making sacrifices for those they don’t and will never know, ably accompanied by Kenneth Branagh’s duty-bound, anguished commander and James D’Arcy’s fraught army man.
Cillian Murphy has a striking role as a shellshocked soldier, who creates problems immediately for Dawson and his son (stoically played by Tom Glynn-Carney), while Barry Keoghan’s sailing apprentice George embodies that desire for men too young to fight to get involved, whatever the risks. Finally, Aneurin Barnard makes an impression as a quieter soldier desperate to escape, as does Jack Lowden as Farrier’s more talkative Scottish wingman.
I could go on forever about this film – it’s an unforgettable experience that somehow pays respect to the events, and yet hits home the utter pointlessness of war. People will try to twist it into a message one way or another, but all it does is effortlessly transport you into a remarkable event, and show the better and worse sides of humanity under pressure. See it in the cinema – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!