Christopher Nolan ventures into the war genre for the first time in Dunkirk and he has certainly left his mark; a monumental example on how to portray the raw and visceral brutality of war. Dunkirk is an anxiety-inducing sensory spectacle with a gripping tale of courage in the face of insurmountable adversity. Based on a true story of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War Two, Dunkirk follows the desperation of 400,000 Allied soldiers stranded on a beach surrounded by the Axis powers. In the words of Winston Churchill, it was a colossal military disaster that was transformed into a miracle of deliverance.
The narrative follows three timelines:
i. The Mole (one week) – Those that were stranded on the beach.
ii. The Sea (one day) – The Royal Navy and private boats preparing the evacuation.
iii. The Air (one hour) – The Spitfires providing air support.
Nolan’s non-linear narrative structure works well in highlighting the epic scale of the Dunkirk evacuation and it really keeps you invested in the experience of the movie but it gets confusing at times because of the lack of dialogue and characterisation, a deliberate decision by Nolan that doesn’t quite work. Moreover, seeing the three timelines start to converge is incredibly satisfying because, in the midst of the bombings and the loss of life, the glimmer of hope that something will come together to save these soldiers is ever-present and keeps you glued to the screen.
Some of the action scenes are edited quite harshly whilst others linger; both add to the chaotic environment of war. It’s easy to lose track of the characters you are following sometimes which has you darting your eyes around during some of the intense action scenes; you rarely know who’s safe and who’s dead until the action is over. Something that Saving Private Ryan did well that Dunkirk doesn’t is the focus on the main characters during action scenes as they struggled and fought to survive. The characters in Dunkirk are drowned out by the magnitude of war around them. However, they are drowned out by truly magnificent set-pieces of action, some of the best I’ve ever seen on film.
Dunkirk also focuses on a much-suppressed aspect of war, the shell shock, the vulnerabilities of humans thrust into an unnaturally vicious fight to the death. One of Dunkirk’s lead characters is a young lad named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) whose only goal is survival; there is no sense of manufactured patriotism that drives him only the reality of his condition and his innate instincts. The lead character in the second timeline is Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is indisputably the most fleshed out character in the movie. A man of courage and conviction heading towards Dunkirk with no sense of fear despite being warned that he may never come back. The movie really focuses on Mr. Dawson’s journey into the eye of the storm because his instinct is the reason the Dunkirk evacuation was successful. An ordinary civilian taking up the responsibility of his country to do what he feels is right. The third timeline focuses on three Spitfire pilots defending the evacuation process as best as they can. The use of real locations, spitfire planes and destroyer warships really comes through on the big screen with each explosion more visceral than the last and each spitfire scream that makes you a little more jittery.
Hans Zimmer teams up with Christopher Nolan once again to score this movie and I think this is the first time I wouldn’t listen to the soundtrack outside of the movie. It served its purpose perfectly, the use of the ticking timepiece and soft squeals of a civil defence siren throughout the movie really makes it feel like 106 minutes of a ticking time bomb that regularly explodes yet begins ticking again for the next bombshell, the intensity of it riddles you with anxiety and that is exactly what it was supposed to do.
In terms of acting performances, there is no stand-out and that is because the screenplay does not require a stand-out performance. It is written as an ensemble and that clearly shines through. The focus of the narrative is the tragedy and miracle of Dunkirk and not whether Harry Styles makes it through, who does a good job by the way. Fionn Whitehead plays the vulnerable lead really well, you can tell he is always in above his head but his tenacious performance will see him nab many lead roles in the future. Cillian Murphy, Nolan’s resident troubled character actor, does a great job of personifying shell shock.
Christopher Nolan’s technical prowess is unrivalled. Dunkirk’s pacing is relentless which is why I am glad this is one of Nolan’s shorter movies, it hits the sweet spot with its score, set-pieces and cinematography. Dunkirk is a truly epic depiction of the raw and bleak nature of war.