Never have I been so gripped by a film from it’s opening second, to it’s very last. Dunkirk does just that. It is quite possibly the most immersive film of all time, utilising real boats, real planes, actual locations, and thousands of extras to put you at the centre of this moment and that’s what this film is about, the event, being in the middle of the evacuation.
The film tells the story of the evacuation of almost 400,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk in 1940. Cut off and surrounded by the German army, this is a war film that isn’t so much about fighting but instead the desperate act of survival. Told from three different perspectives and timescales, Christopher Nolan delivers a monumental piece of film making which is relentless in its intensity.
The battle is over before the film has begun but the action commences straight away. A trooper named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) scrambles desperately to the beach through the streets of a French town whilst under heavy fire. He arrives to a panorama of thousands of stranded British and French troops waiting in lines across the sand. There’s no Royal Navy in sight and no Royal Air Force to protect them from relentless aerial bombardment. Tommy joins others in the fight for survival including fellow trooper Alex (Harry Styles – a fine acting debut).
Meanwhile RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are engrossed in dogfights above the Channel in their Spitfires. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) are overseeing the evacuation with growing frustration. Finally on the home front and at sea we have Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) sailing to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation which brings him into contact with a traumatised officer (Cillian Murphy).
This brings us to the three perspectives, each unfolding at a different rate: 1) The Mole, on land over one week, 2) The Sea, one day and 3) The Air, one hour. The three perspectives combine with one another at points in the film but at completely different moments, creating this unique opportunity to witness a sequence from a completely different point of view. The intensity mounts as you see the timelines grow closer and eventually collide and sync with one another near the climax of the film.
Unlike other WWII films Dunkirk isn’t overly violent or gory, you couldn’t possibly compare it to Saving Private Ryan for instance, there is no battle, it doesn’t need to focus on the gruesome elements of war to convey the horror. Dunkirk evokes genuine terror, witnessing the experience and the utter desperation of each of these soldiers to survive. Hearing the screeching engine of a dive bombing German fighter plane, piercing machine gun fire and thunderous bombs shelling helpless troops on the beach. This terror inducing experience is only heightened by Han Zimmer’s apocalyptic score which works to build the intensity and suspense of the film.
This isn’t a war story that leads to victory – Dunkirk is about survival, living to fight another day. It delivers an immersive, terrifying and heroic depiction of the evacuation. Here Nolan delivers an absolute masterpiece, a cinema experience like no other, his finest film yet.
TIP: this film is made for IMAX, see it in IMAX.
(UPDATE – 28/07/2017) The biggest criticism I have seen of this film is the lack of character backstory. Christopher Nolan stated this was intentional:
“The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?”
This takes me back to my opening paragraph, Dunkirk is about the event. You don’t get to know anyone’s backstory, you don’t even get to see a single face of the enemy. Yet it completely captivates the audience from beginning to end, we are utterly immersed in the evacuation, their plight is our plight. The film then delivers an emotionally satisfying ending with absolutely stunning, heart pounding action sequences. That’s why Dunkirk is a unique film experience. That’s why Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest directors of our time.