Director Christopher Nolan has become synonymous with mind-bending budget blockbusters, from his polarising sci-fi Inception to recent space epic Interstellar. This time he’s focused on a subject more grounded with Dunkirk, a historical thriller set in the 1940 evacuation of British troops from the French coast. The final product is breathtaking in scale and unconventional in its storytelling approach.
Dunkirk is divided into three intersecting stories – the beach, the sea and the air. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead leads the cast on land, as they fight to avoid the bombs approaching overhead and risk straying into enemy territory. Meanwhile, Mark Rylance plays civilian mariner Mr Dawson, who captains his small yacht into the dangerous waters to try and retrieve some troops. Above, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden portray two RAF pilots racing across the sky, desperately trying to halt the destruction rained down by the Luftwaffe.
Written, as well as directed, by Nolan, the film itself is short by his usual epic standards at 1 hour 45 minutes. It feels quick, with every second ticking by as the fear and adrenaline felt by those in the film swallows up those watching. Combined with an excellent Hans Zimmer score, it’s truly terrifying, effectively conveying the brutal onslaught and uncertainty that soldiers at Dunkirk must have endured. The use of practical effects really stands out in an age where CGI is often used as a cost-cutting option – here, the attention to detail and real props clearly helps the actors and it helps us. The result is unbearably real.
From a filmmaking point of view, Dunkirk makes some complex choices. Shot in Imax and 70mm, a screening in that form is a true visual experience, offering viewers a breadth of vision that is wholly immersive. There’s one Nolan-ism that causes some difficulty – the director isn’t fond of linear narratives, whether he’s resetting the meaning of time in Interstellar or just running the film backwards in Memento. The three sections in Dunkirk all have different time spans, with the beach set over a week, the sea over a day and the air over just an hour. As a result, it becomes faintly confusing at times to see familiar faces appear in a scene when they were doing something completely different thirty seconds ago. It’s easy to see the reasoning of his decision behind this structure, but the execution can distract from the narratives at times.
Despite this and although it’s come under some criticism for having an ensemble cast without certain leads, taking that approach is really a refreshing change. It’s an easy trick to create a romantic couple or specific lead as the emotional touchpoint for the audience (hello Titanic and Pearl Harbour), but by having an large cast with time equally split, Nolan instead reinforces the involvement of men from all walks of life. All the actors give it their all and no one’s struggles are necessarily more important than anyone else – they’re sharing an experience and that impression of scale comes first and foremost as a result.
For those watching with personal ties through family, this film will have a real resonance in bringing forth the horror that caused long term trauma to those who experienced it. However, there’s pride there too – a story of survival, it recognises the shame and panic that some men felt in the situation but emphasises their status as true heroes. Treated with care, there are certain scenes in the film that will stay with you for a long time as a result. In the end, it’s sobering to walk out of the screening room of Dunkirk and see Britain as it is now, knowing that the sacrifices these soldiers made was to protect the things in life that we now take for granted.