I’ve made it no secret in the past that my favourite director working today is Christopher Nolan. His films are some of the best examples in modern film in the use of time and structure to play around with the audience, putting the audience in the right frame of mind for twists and suspense. For the most part, Nolan’s films have been focused on the realms of escapism and the power that it holds, in particular the power of the comforting lie, the desire to be fooled and to be filled with optimism. That element is why the Dunkirk evacuation seemed like the perfect historical event for Nolan to base a film around. The evacuation early on in the Second World War was a powerful moment in the history of the war and helped define the attitude the British had throughout the war, the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ being noted throughout looks at the British civilians during World War 2. However, whilst the events after the evacuation have been dramatised, aside from one film there haven’t been any films about the evacuation itself, and Nolan uses this to make one of the most intense war films to come out in recent years.
The film takes place in the early days of World War 2 in May 1940. Following a failed attack on the Nazi soldiers occupying France by the British army and navy, 400,000 soldiers are forced to retreat to the beach of Dunkirk and wait to be evacuated back to England. Whilst the soldiers are trapped on the beach, the Nazi soldiers are inching closer to Dunkirk by the hour, with the German airforce in particular focusing their efforts on the beach whilst the u-boats and bombers prevent the larger warships from taking soldiers off the beach. During this, the Navy activates a protocol calling for civilian boats, mainly pleasure yachts and fishing boats, to be requisitioned and be used for the evacuation, these boats being preferred due to the shallow tide at Dunkirk, with it being a race against time before for the boats to reach Dunkirk before the Nazi forces do. Now the way Nolan structures the film helps with bringing across all the information you need about the evacuation in a way that doesn’t let up the intensity, with the film being divided into three sections, each section being set over a different period of time, with a week on the beach, a day on the sea and an hour in the air. As the film goes on, the characters in each of these sections interact with each other, with them all merging together at the end of the film. This was a genius decision made by Nolan as it ensures that a high level of tension is maintained throughout the film, each of the different stories being intercut with each other to produce as much suspense as possible. What also works is Nolan’s desire to put you in the mindset of the characters. Through both the structure of the film and the lack of dialogue in the land portion of the film, you are put in the shoes of the soldiers in Dunkirk, feeling all the dread and mistrust they feel. It also feels more believable that there is little dialogue on the beach as the soldiers were focused more on survival than in learning more about each other, they don’t even exchange names. Every line of dialogue is deliberate and if there was more dialogue, whilst it would have improved the characterisation in the film, it would have detracted from the experience. I also liked how the film tackled some of the other elements of the evacuation, mainly how the French were holding the Nazi’s off and how Churchill wanted the evacuation to focus on British soldiers, along with the expectation that 30,000 soldiers would be rescued if they were lucky. These little elements are mentioned in the background, giving some context for the events of the film, but they aren’t the focus of the film, the focus is on putting you in the shoes of the men on the beach, on the sea and in the air.
The acting in the film helps to enforce this, even if the characters are a little thin. On the land, the focus is Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, who does a solid job showing the desperation of the character through little dialogue, along with having a bit more of a trusting nature than some of the other soldiers. Harry Styles meanwhile is surprisingly great as Alex, a soldier Tommy saves near the start of the film. Again, Styles does well with a lack of dialogue, along with getting one of the more showy moments of acting in the film later on, which I won’t spoil here. Aneruin Barnard meanwhile is also great, having some great moments of internal conflict delivered without dialogue, although to explain why his performance works so well would spoil the character. Solid performances are also seen from Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy as the commanders on the beach, having some of the more understated moments in the film, which is rare to say for Branagh, delivering the exposition in the film effectively. On the sea, Mark Rylance is effectively the soul of the film as Dawson, showing a clear desire to help as many people as he can and not wanting to run away from the war, essentially being the embodiment of the Dunkirk spirit. Cillian Murphy is excellent as well as a shell-shocked soldier, Murphy playing the damage done to the character by the events he does through brilliantly, making the character an unpredictable, tragic presence. Great work is also done by Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan, Keoghan in particular getting some great work later on showing the history of the character. In the air meanwhile, Tom Hardy is strong as Farrier, showing a strong determination to protect as many people on the boats and beach as possible, his character coming close to Rylance for embodying the soul of the film, whilst Jack Lowden as Collins gives strong work and it’s nice to get a voiceover cameo from Michael Caine.
The technical side of the film is where Nolan really shines though. Now I saw the film in 70mm IMAX and this is absolutely the best way to see Dunkirk. The film stock gives the film a bit of a grainy look, mainly on the sea, which works wonders in bringing across the tone of the film through image. The height of this though is easily the air section of the film. With Nolan and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema strapping IMAX cameras to actual Spitfires, we get a better sense than in any other film of what it must have been like to be in the air, flying a Spitfire. These are the most intense, exhilarating scenes in the film and seeing it in the largest format possible is the way to go. Special praise also has to go to the sound design and the music, again especially in IMAX. The sound design works wonders with the sound system of a proper IMAX screen to put you in the mindset of the soldiers, the vibrations from the sound make you physically feel like you are on the beach, feeling every little movement that the soldiers are feeling, it’s an exhilarating experience. The music meanwhile adds to the tension of the film by focusing on the sound of a ticking clock, the music doing a better job than any dialogue to let you know that the soldiers on the beach only have a limited amount of time before the Nazi soldiers break through the French defences and storm Dunkirk.
In terms of putting you in the mindset of the characters outside the sound, the decisions Nolan makes are excellent. For starters, you never see any Nazi soldiers when following the soldiers on the beach. You can see the planes and hear the bullets but you never actually see the enemy. Through this, Nolan makes it clear that the enemy could advance onto Dunkirk at any moment and there is never any moment where the characters are safe, building the tension throughout the film. This is helped by the editing between the three sections, every single cut being timed to deliver the maximum amount of tension, with some scenes being shown from multiple viewpoints, adding to the tension through seeing elements in one part of the story that another part would forgo, with this being best used in the editing between the sea and air sections of the film. In terms of the realism of the film, the way Nolan uses scale is of special praise here. By having 6000 extras on the beach, Nolan is able to show off the sheer size of the evacuation that is needed, with this further helping to build the tension as, whilst it is known that over 300,000 soldiers would be evacuated, you never know which of the soldiers will make it to safety, whether or not the characters that we follow will even survive the events of the film, which makes the decision to focus on a handful of characters work wonders. This is aided by the use of real World War 2 era vehicles, showing the scale of everything, with the debris from these vehicles adding to the tension, along with the mass of them showing the fear of being crushed in between two objects being just as severe as being shot. The use of water helps with this as well, with the soldiers we follow being in more danger of drowning than in being shot, with water rushing through torpedo and bullet holes creating the most suspenseful scenes in the film, whilst the use of tidal patterns creates an element of horror through bodies of people killed out at sea washing onto the shore of Dunkirk once the tide comes in. All of these elements add up to create once of the most intense experiences I’ve had in the cinema in a long time.
Overall, Dunkirk is a masterful piece of filmmaking, a true showcase of what a master of cinema can do when given access to all of the tools they need. The characters are a little thin but creating strong characters wasn’t what Christopher Nolan was going for with Dunkirk. Nolan’s goal was to put you on the beach, on the sea and in the air, putting you in the shoes of those who experienced the events of the Dunkirk evacuation and in this goal Nolan succeeds with flying colours, especially if you see it in 70mm IMAX. Dunkirk is a reminder of why Christopher Nolan is one of the best filmmakers working today.
My Rating: 5/5