At this point in his already accomplished career, it is fair to say that Christopher Nolan can be regarded as a contemporary torch bearer for traditional filmmaking, a man who truly defends the big screen experience. In Dunkirk, Nolan’s handling of the 1940 evacuation of allied soldiers in occupied France, it’s soon apparent that Nolan has crafted a tremendously cinematic achievement that grabs hold of you and rarely let’s go. I attended a screening presented in astonishing 35mm, complementing the film with a visual aesthetic that felt completely authentic from the first frame to the last.
Whilst some viewers might pine for a more intimate character study in a film of this respect, or even a traditional ‘hero’ to root for, Nolan instead quickly cuts to the chase with an opening sequence that introduces Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, running for his life from the horrors of street warfare. In the hands of a less experienced filmmaker, Tommy might have been depicted with the kind of characterisation that favours droll dialogue or sentimental sensibilities. Instead, the young actor gives a strong performance that relies heavily on functioning with minimal wordplay, at times throwing back to silent cinema – something which Dunkirk owes a great amount to.
To view this as a silent film, however, would undermine the sheer effectiveness of the staggering score from frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, stretching from the tick-tock of a humble stopwatch to grandiose, orchestral sweeps. It’s almost an off screen character throughout the narrative, a story which simultaneously intertwines a week on the beach, an hour in the sky and a day at sea. The three-arc storyline is a bold move, one which possibly propels Nolan to the heights of auteur status, continuing his long-standing fascination with time from his last work, the bewilderingly excessive Interstellar.
With Dunkirk, Nolan has assembled perhaps his most stripped back, yet ambitious work to date. In regards to the pantheon of great war films that this will surely be mentioned among, the film is as far from Saving Private Ryan as it is Apocalypse Now. With its absence of blood, guts, and shrapnel, Dunkirk instead utilises the power of its sound and vision to conjure beach sequences as equally as riveting as those of Omaha beach. There is a moment in the first act which could be described as an aerial assault on the senses, as the sight of thousands of beach-stranded troops awaiting the oncoming Luftwaffe is nearly too much to bear. Interestingly, the German soldiers are depicted more like creeping death rather than actual people, with Nolan emphasising the casualties of their actions rather than the enemy themselves.
In the Spitfires of the Royal Air Force, Tom Hardy’s Farrier and Jack Lowden’s Collins work wonders often using just their eyes (and in Hardy’s case, grunts) to depict their duties. The dogfight sequences are a real highlight, with the claustrophobic frenzy of the cockpits providing key dramatic impact in the midst of the glorious cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema. Sailing below across the glimmering channel sees Nolan newcomer Mark Rylance embark on a brave search and rescue mission, but despite the worthy performances on board, this particular strand feels somewhat underdeveloped in comparison with its aerial and grounded counterparts.
It is the essence of Tommy’s story that provides the more subtle, profound moments that give Dunkirk a sense of substance amongst all the spectacle. As Tommy becomes increasingly desperate for a miracle to happen, he stumbles across Harry Styles’s Alex, who gives a mature debut with a significant amount of screen time. As the ongoing conflict takes its toll on both characters physical and mental psyche, a scene on a slowly sinking vessel is delivered with tactile, visceral execution that it veraciously engulfs you in such a moment, as brutally subversive as it may initially seem.
The Kubrick comparisons will inevitably be pointed to, but Dunkirk sees Nolan reach new heights of his own oeuvre, cementing his best film since The Dark Knight. The film lasts just 106 minutes, but it boasts enough intelligence that it is hardly surprising that the script was one of Nolan’s shortest, at 76 pages long. Although some moments in the narrative don’t quite work as much as others, the film is immersive to the core, establishing Nolan as a filmmaker who continues to raise the bar for the modern blockbuster.