Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to not only the film of the summer but a career highlight for Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk is a cinematic masterpiece.
Collins: “He’s on me.”
Farrier: “I’m on him.”
Christopher Nolan is a one of a kind director. From his humble beginnings in Doodlebug and Following, to his breakout hit Memento, to the crime streets of Gotham in The Dark Knight Trilogy, to the wonders of space in Interstellar, Christopher Nolan is a director who seems to know no boundaries. As his creative vision and scale expands with each film, his passion for filmmaking is undeniable, fully embodying a legendary quote from Inception – “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
Dunkirk is no exception. Nolan continues his cinematic journey exploring the challenging themes and traits of personal struggle, sacrifice and hope whilst simultaneously pushing the limits of film presentation, particularly the IMAX format. Dunkirk in the 15/70mm IMAX print with the incredible cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is a true thing of beauty, ranking highly as the best and immersive IMAX experience I’ve seen.
The story of Dunkirk is as famous to us Brits as Pearl Harbour is to Americans. It’s an incredible part of history highlighting a military failure, its miracle, and a celebration of the human spirit or “Dunkirk spirit” as it’s known when home came to aid the rescue. Hitler’s blitzkrieg attack of tanks, artillery and German Luftwaffe planes on the British and allied army pushed them to the beaches of Dunkirk. What was supposed to be an advancing military operation across Europe quickly turned into a desperate evacuation.
The events at Dunkirk are almost too grand in scale and yet Nolan found a way to tell an encompassing and tightly driven narrative in one hour and forty-six minutes. He once again returns to a familiar yet not surprising trait of his filmmaking – time.
With time, Nolan essentially bends or even breaks the laws of storytelling, psychologically raising the stakes each frame at a time. The non-linear elements are not spoon fed but encourages the audience to meet him halfway in witnessing how everything unfolds and methodically comes together.
Structurally Dunkirk is inspired by his previous film Inception. The Mole aka the beach is one week, focussing on the narrative of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) trying to get off the beach along with the rest of the army. The sea is one day, focussing on Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan), answering the call to sail towards Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers. Finally, the air is one hour, focussing on the RAF pilots of Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). With limited amount of fuel, they dogfight their way to protect the battleships and the soldiers on the beach from aerial attack. When the soldiers were pegged back in their failed attempts to get off the beach like a repetitive and endless cycle of violence, death and chaos, that becomes limbo in the story. Just like Nolan’s previous films, the beauty is watching how the story starts to converge, like a synchronised kick through the elements. To help establish that creative notion, some scenes are briefly repeated but from the point of view of where the narrative is, placing character dilemmas into context until everything lines up accordingly.
As well as his familiar traits, Nolan does break his own rules. Typically, his films are centralised on a singular, goal-obsessed character adapting, responding and escaping a labyrinth of their own creation by doing the impossible. Dunkirk represents a reversal in that trend reflecting the collective experience of Dunkirk instead of focussing on one individual.
Dunkirk has been drawn into some strange criticism as of late with Nolan’s characterisation which has left some viewers emotionally cold. I’m not questioning the validity of those comments because at the end of the day everyone is entitled to their opinion. That’s what cinema debate is for! But I disagree with it in this case because what Nolan delivers is not your typical or conventional war film.
Dunkirk is not about camaraderie amongst soldiers or Commanders or politicians pushing pieces on a map for potential attack scenarios. Dunkirk is not even a desensitized, blood and guts film and whilst some may view that as unrealistic, that’s not the goal Nolan was aiming for. If you’re looking for those elements then Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line or Where Eagles Dare are some of the examples out there which already covers that war narrative.
Dunkirk largely plays out like a virtual reality simulation but without the goggles, replicating the feeling of war rather than the conventional grain that we’re use to. Stripping away dialogue and utilising the art of silence, character expression is conveyed through their eyes just like in silent films. It powerfully reminds me of films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or von Stroheim’s Greed where character definition can dramatically hold a scene. So in Dunkirk where you see soldiers watching the dead float back to the beach because of the change in the tides, a soldier effectively committing suicide by “walking to England”, the enemy dropping flyers taunting you or Farrier contemplating whether to face the enemy knowing his fuel could run out at any given minute are some examples which make Dunkirk utterly compelling. Sometimes there are no words when the main objective is just to get off the beach. When words are expressed like reciting Churchill’s speech, it’s a hollow expression which doesn’t come close to the physical and mental challenges the soldiers faced. Some soldiers may never recover as highlighted with the shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy). Because the camera is so up close and personal, you almost feel like you’re sitting alongside them or in the cockpit flying a spitfire. Dunkirk joins films like Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Iñárritu‘s The Revenant and Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes where directors have embraced a minimalist direction in order to set a comprehensive tone. That’s what Nolan has achieved.
When you put all the elements together, you suddenly realise that Dunkirk is more than just a war film. You’re watching a survival horror film, a psychologically, relentless suspense trip that Hitchcock would be proud of. It results in a film that leaves you breathless.
Commander Bolton: “You can practically see it from here.”
Captain Winnant: “What?”
Commander Bolton: “Home.”
Another constant factor that makes Dunkirk an intense experience comes down to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. It’s an intelligent exercise in audio dissonance, always creating a sense of uneasiness and impending doom which heavily reminded me of Jóhann Jóhannsson score for the brilliant Sicario.
The reason for that uneasiness, that constant escalation of tension and suspense comes from an audio technique and trait which Nolan used before on The Prestige. It’s called a shepard tone, an audio illusion where sound can increase or decrease in pitch without reaching its limit. Combine that with the constant sound of a ticking clock, playing into Nolan’s psychological examination of human survival as a race against time, it’s like being trapped on a roller-coaster ride that refuses to stop and it’s incredibly effective. With its intricate sound design, the noise levels are amplified. The German dive bombers for example sounded like a screeching banshee as they made their descent. Because they bombed the beach frequently (every thirty minutes as stated in Channel 4’s recent documentary Dunkirk: The New Evidence) it adds to the psychological tension which Nolan accurately and authentically captures.
The only time it breaks free from that musical notion, where the audience can feel at ease or hopeful is when Elgar’s Nimrod filters through the speakers. A popular piece of music, Zimmer gives it a modern adaptation and remix which doesn’t lose the original essence of Elgar’s music. Zimmer’s love of the synthesizer is equally measured like how Vangelis used the synthesizer for Chariots of Fire solidifying that you can combine modern filmmaking and score in a historical film.
I regard Nolan as a magician. As a fan of his career for a long time, his work is awe-inspiring to watch, constantly recapturing the reason why I love going to the cinema. It’s not just to be entertained but to completely lose yourself and be mesmerised in an experience that crosses every emotional boundary that exists in your soul. That might sound silly, stupid or even clichéd but when you see a director pushing himself in a dedication towards the craft, I’m that small kid again watching a film on a big screen for the first time, imagining the possibilities of what film can do.
Dunkirk is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best films of the year. The first time I saw it, my hands were shaking from the film’s magnitude. The second time I was able to appreciate more of the film’s technical marvel and guess what I’ll probably see it again before the summer is over.
It’s a film deserving my highest praise possible. Where you ultimately rank this film amongst your favourite Nolan films is up to you. As for me, it’s one of his best.