Running time: 1 hour 17 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Spoiler alert in effect.
Christopher Nolan has yet again delivered one of his finest works on the grandest scale with Dunkirk. I’ve been waiting a long time to watch this, ever since I heard Nolan was making another film. His works have always been a favourite of mine, in particular Prestige, Inception and Interstellar. It’s his brilliant camera work and mind-blowing plot twists that have always enthralled me. While Dunkirk might have a much simpler and different narrative compared to his others, Nolan is still able to tell this famous war event effectively, using a combination of good casting, sweeping cinematography and a brilliant score.
One of the things that stood out for me early on were the multiple trailers (they’re more like multiple teasers) released. They were super cryptic, focusing heavily on the visuals and settings rather than the actors/characters themselves. I remember watching Wonder Woman in the cinemas, and there was literally a collection of 5 or so 10-second teasers for Dunkirk appearing after each preview trailer for other films. It was a piece of art in itself, and it really helped to set the artistic tone and foreboding mood for the actual film.
Essentially, this entire film is a tense and emotional take on the true events that happened at Dunkirk during WWII. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that it is absolutely unrelenting in pace and intensity for its entire 107-minute duration (which is a whole hour less than Interstellar and Nolan’s shortest film ever!). Literally, there is no time for the audience to catch their breath and just relax.
An aspect I really appreciated about the film was the minimal gore/blood present. It didn’t follow in the footsteps of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Gibson’s recent Hacksaw Ridge, which were inspiring films but made my stomach churn the entire way through. I actually looked this up before watching, just to make sure I could prepare myself. Thankfully, it focused on other aspects more.
In terms of the plot, it’s essentially divided into three concurrent narratives: land, sea and air. This is briefly established at the start of the film to help the audience understand that three separate stories were being told over different time periods; land covered one week, sea covered one day, and air covered one hour. So the film is essentially non-linear, and there are no clear indications of when it switches back and forth between the different stories. This was slightly confusing at the beginning, but made more sense as the film progressed, and the shifts between night and day further hinted at the non-linearity. Other than this however, there were no real story arcs or complex plot developments. The whole movie is fueled by the sheer desperation of the British (and French) soldiers in their attempt to escape from the shores of Dunkirk, and resounding bravery of average British citizens who attempted to stage a rescue effort with civilian vessels. There is very little context of the war or situation itself, other than the opening shots of the film, telling the audience a miracle was needed to save the 400,000 soldiers trapped on the beach. And that’s literally the only time the film had to explain anything to the audience, because from the get-go, we were thrown into the midst of action and gunfire. It’s often said that films shouldn’t use text to explain the narrative (the age-old ‘show, don’t tell’ adage) but it works for Dunkirk. Because if Nolan had used up time to explain the context and setting, it would have broken the pacing and tone for the entire film, and that’s its backbone. Plus, I don’t think the audience needed any more information. It was enough to understand the sense of fear, hopelessness, and desolation, because these are universal emotions. You don’t necessarily have to understand the politics of the situation to see what the film was trying to show you. In fact, it allowed the audience to jump in with less preconceived notions and prejudice which might have altered their perspective of the film.
The non-linearity of the plot was also combined with non-traditional character development and sparse dialogue, adding to the uniqueness of the film, and is a further testament to Nolan’s bravery and skill in story-telling. The focus of the film is not on any particular individual/s, but rather, it views everyone as a collective group of people trying to escape Dunkirk. This is emphasised by the constant sweeping wide-shots of the soldiers on the beach. Only a handful of characters have names assigned to them and we never know their back story. Dialogue is often the way to establish characters and their motivations, but this is not to say that there’s no character development taking place here. Rather, it is the character’s reactions to their situation and their facial and bodily expressions that convey their development. Harry Style’s character Alex displays his selfishness and racist views when put in a pressured situation with a French soldier. On the other hand, we see Fionn Whitehead’s character Tommy act the complete opposite, showing compassion and selflessness in defending the French soldier. This is how the characters display their growth. The one issue I had with this film was that the dialogue was nearly impossible to catch against the background of music and explosions. There were parts which would probably have made more sense if I had been able to hear what they said. There was very little dialogue to begin with, so I feel the lines that were said were probably important. This might also be related to the fact that I’ve always had trouble catching a British accent.
As a whole, two things really stood out for me: the cinematography and the score. I have never seen such beautiful sweeping wide shots before, especially of that beach. Everything was on such a large scale that you could truly respect the extent of devastation at Dunkirk, and watching it in Vmax was definitely worth it for this film. Plus, the throwback to using 70mm film (as opposed to the more traditional 35mm) created a much more immersive experience, with a bigger image and more light coming through. Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight also used a 70mm, so perhaps it’s a sign of things to come. If you’re interested in what format to watch Dunkirk, check out this article (or if you just want to know more about different film formats). But it was the score which really stole the show for me. You couldn’t miss it. The ticking clock theme laced throughout the whole film made you feel like you were on the edge of your seat the entire time. The sound of gunfire, bombs and shrieks of desperation were loud and punctuated, and even the pauses in between the mayhem were filled by tense, foreboding music. Hans Zimmer did everything right here.
It’s a little premature, but I’m betting on this film to be a likely Oscar contender. If not for Best Picture or Best Director (Nolan has never won an Oscar, or even been nominated for Best Director, so it’s about time!), then surely it will get a ton of technical nominations along with the score. There are plenty more films to come, so it’ll be a long campaign if they want to keep this film in the memories of movie-goers and the Academy voters.
Before I wrap up, it would be remiss of me to not briefly talk about Harry Styles. He is the metaphoric elephant in the room and some of the buzz associated with the film are tied back to him. But I think he does deserve a spot on this film. His acting was great, and most of the time, I forgot that was even him. He auditioned it for it fair and square and people should definitely give him a chance.
Dunkirk is a must-watch cinematic experience that you should try to catch while it’s still in cinemas on 70mm film (and even better if you can get to an IMAX!). It’s a completely immersive, un-worldly experience that will leave your heart racing and leave you with a sense of gratitude that you have a nice, safe home to return to.
P.S. There’s a Michael Caine voice cameo!
1. Did you enjoy the film, or did you find the lack of plot and dialogue boring?
2. How does this rank in terms of Christopher Nolan films?