Dunkirk is ambitious, monumental film making but director Christopher Nolan handles it masterfully, delivering an unconventional and stunning war movie. What has happened is a colossal military disaster. We shall go on to the end. It tells of the evacuation of allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of France during World War two. Close to 400 thousand men were cut off and surrounded by the approaching German army with only days to escape. But unlike saving private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, Dunkirk never lingers on gruesome shots of mangled corpses to convey the horror of war. In fact, horror isn’t quite the right word. Dunkirk evokes the sheer terror of it all.
The huge abstract forces surrounding threatening to swallow the lives of ordinary people. Moments of eerie silence are violently broken by thunderous walls of noise. The sound design is incredible and I spent entire scenes forcibly pressed into my seat. This is only intensified by Ham Zimmer’s colossal score which plays a crucial role in making it feel so suspenseful. But amidst the sound and fury, Dunkirk possesses a quietness too. There can’t be more than a handful of pages of dialogue scattered within its 106 minute run time.
It’s a bold decision creating a darkness at the level of plot and character but it never bothered me in the slightest. no1 instead chooses to focus on the immediacy of the situation. Characters never regail their peers with tales of back home or arouse them with perfectly measured speeches. They’re terrified young men, not much older than boys trying to reach home. The actors do brilliantly with little in the way of dialogue. The cast of relative unknowns are compelling with Harry Styles handed some of the more dramatic scenes which he handles capably.
The young cast has showed up with memorable performances by Kenneth Branner’s navy commander and Tom Hardy’s Ace REF pilot. But the standout performance is undoubtedly Mark Rilands as the quietly heroic Mister Dawson who answers the call and sails his yacht towards Dunkirk and into war. There’s no hiding from this son. We have a job to do.
The whole movie is breathtaking to look at with every frame artfully constructed. Seeing on IMAX is unquestionably the best way to watch it. The format creates a towering, frequently overwhelming experience. As with Nolan’s previous movies, time is hugely significant. Events are seen from three perspectives, land, sea, and air and each one unfolds at a different rate. One week, one day, and 1 hour respectively. As the film progresses, the events of the young infantry man, the civilian sailors coming to the rescue and their RAF pilot guarding them up above begin to dovetail in surprising and satisfying ways. Upon first viewing, this unusual structure occasionally 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 stutter, unforgivable 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. Duncan doesn’t dwell on the horror of war but instead successfully conveys the sheer terror of it all through both small human moments and thunderous scenes of conflict. This isn’t a war story that leads to victory.
That’s not what Dunkirk is about. It was a retreat and inglorous defeat. The war would go on for five more years. But through its miraculous events, Nolan and an outstanding cast were able to depict not only the terrifying, overwhelming forces in play but the power of small acts of decency and bravery of those who survived. And if you’re wondering what else to watch at the cinema, check out our reviews for Spider Man Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes.