The evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII, after what was described by Churchill as “a colossal military disaster”, is ripe movie material. Hundreds of thousands of British troops cut off and stranded in Northern France, surrounded by marauding Nazis with home visible from the shoreline but no way of reaching safety, having civilian owned – and in many cases civilian manned – vessels of all sizes bravely mounting a rescue by chugging into dangerous waters, the Luftwaffe above firing hell from the skies and U-Boats lurking beneath the waves. One can almost picture the brave central character trying to get home to his distraught hand wringing sweetheart across the channel, the soaring score swelling to an emotional crescendo… except this is a Christopher Nolan film and one of modern cinema’s most original and innovative directors isn’t going to simply deliver the expected.
Following several protagonists - none of whom are a lead, this is an ensemble piece in the truest sense – as they attempt to either flee the foamy, uninviting beach; engage in aerial battles with the relentless enemy; or bravely sail the hazardous 39 miles from the safety of England’s south coast, Nolan eschews sentiment and gives us a brutally intense 106 minutes of cinema. It’s all killer and no filler, not a single second is wasted, there’s a sense of urgency as Hans Zimmer’s progressive, brilliant score tick-tocks its way towards an almost unbearable climax, a haunting aural character pulsating throughout.
Fionn Whitehead is Tommy, a young soldier doing all he can to board a destroyer heading for home. Striking up a partnership with an equally desperate and resourceful colleague (Aneurin Barnard) and meeting a mouthy grunt in the form of Harry Styles – who’s as good as anyone here, proving his presence is no mere case of stunt casting (as if Nolan would stoop so low). Styles is set to shut a few naysayers up with his assured performance – they face insurmountable odds to survive and reach safety. Up in the skies, stoic and heroic Spitfire pilots Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden making a dashing duo) engage in a palm sweatingly tense dogfight with the faceless enemy whilst in a Kent harbour kindly, brave Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and eager local lad George (Barry Keoghan) embark on a mission to rescue their stricken countrymen and deal with a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy).
On the beach, dialogue is sparse and the story unfolds visually, with Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema doing arresting work here, creating a gorgeous tableaux that takes full advantage of Nolan’s IMAX frames (70% of Dunkirk was filmed with these most cinematic of cameras). In the air, Nolan’s cameras ascend with real spitfires, actors Hardy and Lowden with them. The ear-splitting gunfire and soaring movement of the cameras make these scenes almost unbearably tense, the tin-can flying machines so perilously fragile.
Watching in 70mm on IMAX is a far more immersive experience than 3D could ever be. From the thunderous roar of the Spitfires, the bombs dropped on the sandy beaches, to the claustrophobia of soldiers struggling to breathe underwater, the audience feel it all, ducking from explosions and catching their breath along with the characters on screen. It’s a staggering achievement but Nolan’s real ace is bringing the unconventional structure together, the timelines may serve to confuse those not paying attention but the payoff is a rewarding one.
A breathlessly intense masterpiece. Dunkirk is unlike anything we’ve seen before and it’s doubtful we’ll see anything like again.