Shock and awe.
Thousands of extras huddled together on a narrow strip of beach. Reconditioned fighter planes screaming across the sky in perfect formation. Three different perspective and timespans, unfolding and intersecting. Dunkirk is ambitious, monumental filmmaking, to say the least, but director Christopher Nolan handles it all masterfully, delivering an unconventional and stunning war movie.
It tells of the evacuation of Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of France during World War II. Close to 400,000 soldiers were cut off with the German army surrounding them, with only days to escape. Unconventionally for a war movie, it isn’t really about facing nor fighting the enemy but the desperate act of survival.
Unlike other WW2 movies, such as Saving Private Ryan or the more recent Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk never lingers on gruesome shots of mangled corpses to convey the horror of war. In fact, “horror” isn’t the right word – Dunkirk evokes the sheer terror of it all; the huge, abstract forces surrounding and threatening to swallow the lives of ordinary people.
Moments of eerie silence are violently broken by thunderous walls of sound – piercing gunfire and screeching Spitfires. The sound design is incredible, and I spent entire scenes forcibly pressed into my comfy IMAX seat. This is only heightened by Han Zimmer’s colossal score, which plays a crucial role in making Dunkirk feel so intense and suspenseful. (I even laughed a couple of times, unintentionally, because I didn’t quite know how else to cope with the mounting tension.)
But amidst the sound and fury, Dunkirk possesses a meditative quietness. There can’t be more than a handful of pages of dialogue scattered within its 106-minute runtime. It’s a bold decision, creating a starkness at the level of plot and character, but it never bothered me in the slightest such is the quality of filmmaking and acting on show.
In fact, the smattering of exposition results in the movie’s clumsiest scene, in which two soldiers overhear officers outlining their dire predicament. But compared to most movies, there’s almost nothing – Nolan instead focuses on the immediacy of their plight. Similarly, characters never regale their peers with tales of back home or rouse them with perfectly measured speeches; they’re terrified young men, not much older than boys, trying to survive. That’s all you get, and all I really needed to know. The lack of individual character detail and development never hindered how much I feared for their safety. There’s one scene involving a fighter pilot that literally had me on the edge of my seat, and the only detail I could latch onto was a Scottish accent. Without knowing much about these men, you still fear for their lives.
The actors do brilliantly with relatively little in the way of dialogue. The cast of unknowns are compelling, with Harry Styles handed some of the more dramatic scenes which he handles with skill beyond his experience. He can definitely act. The young cast is shored up with assured performances by Kenneth Branagh’s Navy commander and Tom Hardy’s ace RAF pilot. But the standout performance is undoubtedly Mark Rylance as the quietly heroic Mr. Dawson, who answers the call and sails his pleasure yacht towards Dunkirk and into war.
Dunkirk deftly moves between the big and small, thunderous spectacle and incidental detail – bread smeared with strawberry jam, scuffed and bloodied knuckles, and the restorative power of a good cup of tea. (This is a British war story, after all.)
The metaphor isn’t thickly smeared on but soon becomes clear: Dunkirk turns into a purgatory for the stranded men. Home is within sight, but Hell isn’t far away, either. Men leave by boat only to be thrown back upon the sand. The point is underscored by some stunning visuals, with the beach – slate-grey, fog-bound – seemingly becoming disconnected from time and space.
The whole movie is breathtaking to look at, in fact, with every frame artfully constructed. Seeing it on IMAX is unquestionably the best way to watch it, with approximately 75% of footage filmed to suit the format; it creates a towering and overwhelming experience.
As with many of Nolan’s movies, time is hugely significant. With the German forces marching ever closer, he stranded soldiers are running out of it. Events are seen from three perspectives – land, sea, and air – each one unfolding at a different rate – one week, one day, and one hour, respectively. As the film progresses, the events of the young infantrymen, the civilian sailors coming to their rescue, and the RAF pilots guarding them up above begin to dovetail in surprising and satisfying ways. Occasionally, this unusual structure creates moments of passing confusion. A couple of times I wasn’t sure if I was witnessing a new event or a familiar one from a different angle. It’s not a huge problem, more of a slight stumble, and forgivable for the larger effect it creates: pressure and anxiety mount as you see these distinct timelines grow closer and eventually collide. The whole movie feels like watching a ticking bomb.