Christopher Nolan / Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy / War-Drama / 2017 / 12A / 106mins
Christopher Nolan’s latest flick needs little introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, without further ado, here is the film of the summer (and possibly the best war film of all time).
The most famous war in history is still a year young. The Allied Forces are surrounded by the blitzkrieg Nazi machine in the seaside town of Dunkirk. Land, air and sea each tell their story. Soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) fight to survive on the beaches as Farrier (Tom Hardy) provides cover from his Spitfire and Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) races across the Channel, desperate to save as many men as he can.
Time. Nolan is obsessed with time, how it affects his characters and the film itself. In Dunkirk, three plots interweave to create a web of perspectives. Minimal dialogue is supplemented by an onomatopoeic barrage of death sirens and staccato bullets. There’s no need for explanations – the story of Dunkirk is part of the British patriotic psyche, one of our finest acts of defiance in the face of certain death. Time could not be more relevant – the story and it’s director are a match made in heaven.
Sound is used to great effect. There’s machinated hissing and booming drum loops, all combining to integrate you into the experience. The use of a perpetually ticking clock reminds us of Death, ready to pounce; time is running out. Hans Zimmer’s score is beyond compare in its simplistic fury.
Above all, Dunkirk is a horrifying impressionistic masterpiece. The screeching Juncker dive bombers, merely dots in the sky, are infinitely more terrifying. The sailors of the Little Boats approach the shore like statues, unmoved and iconic. The unseen enemy kills without remorse. Most importantly, the only death we truly experience if that of a young boy. Despite all the bloodshed that is implied, the loss of life through a simple accident details the full extent and sacrifice of the war (and ultimately the pointlessness of it all). To have a footsoldier read Churchill’s ‘On the beaches’ speech aloud, the movie’s longest monologue by far, shows how order and honour is restored by the civilised normality of language. They are finally home.
Melodrama, particularly observed with Branagh’s teary-eyed reaction to the Little Boats amidst biblical shining light, is a strange choice for such dramatic content but it fits with the emotional discourse. Nolan’s ability to craft a film that is, on the surface, inherently un-warlike is the dire attraction. It is radically different. Lingering shots that seem so juxtaposed: the bombs that stop short of Tommy, the gliding Spitfire, we are compelled to see out the survival (or not) of our respective characters, such is our pull to them as mythological heroes. To end with Farrier’s Spitfire engulfed in flames restores justice. Nolan completes the elemental circle: earth, sea, air and fire. The work is done, the myth is complete.
With a cast of A List regulars and innocent newbies, Nolan could rest assured that his characters would come to life. It’s hard to focus on a few without damaging the effect of the cast as a whole. Pushed to choose, I would say Hardy is magnificent, channelling his work from Locke as a lone wolf sparse on dialogue yet full of emotion. Rylance carries silent courage effortlessly. And yes, Harry Styles is a great actor, although he, Whitehead and Barnard are bland in comparison to their elder counterparts.
With little drama, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there is little payoff on spectacle alone. The trick is we endure with them through an assault of the senses. Because Dunkirk is so wildly different as a war film, it may alienate die-hards to the realism of ‘war-porn’, but you cannot talk about Dunkirk in terms of what it didn’t get right, only what it didn’t get wrong. How can something so monumental in scale not have a single fault?
I never anticipated Nolan would best himself. Memento, The Dark Knight, Interstellar, now Dunkirk. That, if anything, is what bugs me the most. A relentless historical opus that is (arguably) Nolan’s finest moment. Give the man an Oscar.
Film as a Film – 5 / Target Audience – 5 / General Audience – 4
Dunkirk is in cinemas now
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