Dunkirk is uncharted territory for acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, it being the first film he has made based on historical events. In spite of this, the director has produced another excellent entry into his filmography with the unorthodox war film being up there with his best.
The film tells the true story of the 400,000 British soldiers that were surrounded at the beach of Dunkirk during the early years of the Second World War. Divided into three narratives, we follow a young soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to flee the beach, an old sailor, Dawson (Mark Rylance), who makes way for Dunkirk to help, and two fighter pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) who watch over the men from above. As their stories go on, the intense struggle to rescue the stranded soldiers becomes increasingly more difficult with time running out.
Dunkirk is an incredibly tense film from the off. Beginning with a street shootout that leads almost straight into a frightening air assault, the film is pretty much non-stop from then on leaving you little time to catch your breath. The constant feeling that an attack of sorts is imminent, combined with the huge stakes that the movie presents, helps to ramp up the tension when things begin to go wrong. This is best seen through the excellently filmed attacks from the German air force as well as the assaults on British destroyer ships, in which we see the tension painstakingly stretched out before finally being released in devastating fashion.
This intense feeling is greatly added to by Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score. Once again, the mastermind composer has collaborated with Nolan in the best of ways, with each musical piece helping to increase the nail-biting atmosphere that the film creates.
Dunkirk is also beautiful cinematic viewing. The air force sequences, following Collins and Farrier, in particular, look fantastic with Hoyte Van Hoytema once again doing a great job as Nolan’s cinematographer. The great look of the film is key to its success as, with little dialogue throughout, Dunkirk relies a lot on its visual storytelling. Thankfully this is executed brilliantly by Nolan, whose careful direction is complimented by the performances from what is a great cast. More often than not a sharp look or worried face is far more effective than a line of dialogue.
Performance wise, all involved are excellent. Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard are the stand outs, with their portrayals of stranded soldiers, Tommy, Alex and Gibson respectively, being both subtle and believable. The bigger names, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy to name a few, are also great. As the film has no clear leads, it would have been easy to feel a lack of relation to those on screen. Thankfully though, the entire cast puts in a good enough performance so that you find yourself connecting to even the smallest characters.
The film’s plot being broken into three small stories does a great service to the event that its based on. By focussing on small groups rather than trying to encapsulate the entire event, the characters feel far more relatable and the stakes much higher. It allows for more personal storytelling that is best executed in a scene in the hull of a small boat where tensions are raised between Tommy and other British soldiers. The way in which the separate stories all conclude is also very satisfying with Nolan’s signature nonlinear plot structure paying off once again.
Dunkirk is a different kind of war movie. Rather than focus on individual heroes and acts of valour, it captures both the horrors of war, through sequences in which men are essentially picked off, as well as the spirit of people that is shown through both the civilian sailors and the camaraderie between the soldiers.
Overall, Dunkirk is an exceptionally good war film that does justice to the inspiring true story it tells. A beautifully filmed and incredibly intense movie, it should be seen on the big screen for which it has been tailor made.
Verdict: A visually stunning, highly intense war film that demands to be seen on the big screen.
10 out of 10 cigars
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros, Certificate 12a