An unconventional summer blockbuster poised to become not just one of this year’s best films but probably a milestone in action filmmaking – Christopher Nolan's latest opus is a cinematic accomplishment of Titanic (nod intended) proportions.
The brilliant filmmaker has made more than just a film. He has crafted an eerily realistic experience, rigorously shot on 70mm film, that puts you front and center in the heart of its breathtaking action since the very first frame – especially on an IMAX screen.
Dunkirk submerges you in its harrowing drama through an incredible audiovisual stimulation thanks to its astounding use of soundscape, soundtrack, cinematography and editing. Alas, at last, it looks like it's Oscar time for Christopher Nolan and his team, and deservedly so.
Though it may be a surprise to most viewers who are used to the filmmaker's sprawling running times, it makes total sense that his newest opus is a lean and mean 106 minutes movie – his shortest in fact since Following, his 1998 breakthrough indie debut. This however doesn't make Dunkirk any less ambitious or epic than its predecessors. If anything, it confirms how less is (often) more and in this particular case, telling a specific episode of human history demands a tightly paced narrative in order to convey the overwhelming conditions experienced by the characters.
The incredible true story behind this war epic takes place in May and June 1940, during WWII. When the Allied troops of French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk after the German advancement in France, a rescue mission of staggering proportions, code-named Operation Dynamo, proceeded to a slow and methodical evacuation of 330,000 men. With the help of air and ground cover from the British and French armies, an actual armada comprised of every serviceable naval and civilian boat, including tiny fish vessels, left Dover to aid the otherwise doomed troops. Yet for every seven soldiers rescued, one was left behind as a prisoner of war.
Perfectly in line with the scope of Nolan’s inventive storytelling, Dunkirk is told in the filmmaker’s trademark non-linear style across three narrative plains that are cleverly assembled and aimed to collide in explosive fashion. We start on terra firma where Sir Kenneth Branagh oversees the delicate mission, we then dive into the merciless sea with Oscar winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) at the helm of one of the civilian rescue boats and we cap it all off up in the air, aboard a spitfire with Nolan’s lucky charm Tom Hardy.
The three elements are introduced with on-screen captions that also spell out the different durations of the timelines in each scenario: one day, one week, one hour. Only when they all finally collide, the audience can fully grasp what the filmmaker has brilliantly concocted with this narrative structure. At first, you can’t help but feeling overwhelmed by the level of suspense at play and the relentless action that never gives you a chance to catch your breath.
As poignantly underlined by Hans Zimmer’s immersive score, which almost constantly incorporates the sound of a ticking clock and distorted strings pulled to the extreme, there is no time to think because all you can do is survive. Or at least try your best. This may throw off those viewers who are used to a more traditional kind of war movie. But Dunkirk’s best quality is indeed the ability to distance itself from what’s come before or at least pay homage by putting its own spin on tradition.It’d be too easy to say that Nolan has made a film that stretches the style and tone of those first 15-20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan for its entire running time. Sure, he emulates that level of realism but that’s about it. His aesthetics has much more in common with Terrence Malick’s lyricism than Spielberg’s fanfare. Don’t expect to see lingering shots of British flags, underlined by oversentimental music. And don’t be put off by the sparse dialogue and apparently loose character development. Dunkirk is more akin to a silent movie, relying mostly on visual storytelling to capture the brutality of war and its lack of individualism. That’s why the characters’ names are barely mentioned, if at all. War deprives men of their identity and reduces them to numbers.
Nolan still establishes a sort of emotional core in Tommy, portrayed by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who becomes the audience’s main conduit into experiencing the events portrayed on screen since the film’s first shot. As he barely manages to flee to the beach, where Commander Bolton (Branagh) is coordinating the delicate operation, Tommy tags along with other fellow young soldiers, including Alex – pop star Harry Styles at his acting debut. Needless to say that getting on a ship as the foamy tides crash the mole and the enemy drops bombs from the sky isn’t exactly an easy task and the filmmaker relentlessly reminds us of that with the many stakes these young men have to face.
One of the most brilliant ideas put to fruition by the narrative is practically the complete absence of the Germans from the screen. Like in the best horror films’ tradition the unseen is way more terrifying than anything we can clearly identify. There are no Nazi banners or other iconic images on display. The antagonistic forces are made present mostly through the incredible sound effects like piercing bullet showers from automatic weapons and bomb explosions brought to life to a hauntingly realistic effect.
It is impressive how the film captures the sense of claustrophobia experienced by the characters and not just when they’re in confined spaces. The extremely flat wasteland, which is the beach they’re stranded on, is practically a prison despite the open space. They can almost see home from afar, yet it feels unreachable because every time they try to get in the water they are pulled back to shore.
The other two scenarios at hand are no less claustrophobic. Mr. Dawson (Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young friend George (Barry Keoghan) sail off on the man’s small boat to do their patriotic duty and help evacuate the troops but when they rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) stranded on a shipwreck along the way, they immediately get a sense of what they’ve got themselves into. Meanwhile, a heroic pilot (Hardy) does the impossible to provide back up from the sky and despite covered by a mask and mumbling technical gibberish a la Bane, Hardy proves that acting is way more than just delivering lines.
The level of craftsmanship and originality achieved by Nolan and his team are out of this world. Dunkirk plays out like an existentialist, non-stop set piece a la Mad Max: Fury Road told with poetic touches reminiscent of Malick and outstanding water-action sequences nodding to Cameron’s Titanic. The director has spoken about pitching the film to Warner Brothers as a VR experience for the audience and that’s exactly what seeing this amazing piece of work in IMAX feels like.
Very few filmmakers are as bold, visionary and revolutionary as Mr. Nolan and detractors who might have a hard time connecting with his somber style should probably dig deeper into this gifted artist’s ability to use aesthetics as a powerful narrative tool. Here he reaches new heights in his already remarkable career and not just from a technical standpoint.
The cast is thoroughly impressive, nonetheless thanks to the filmmaker’s poignant direction, with Fionn Whitehead standing out in the midst of the overcrowded group of youngsters and Rylance reminding us why he recently won that Oscar. And if you’re a fan-girl waiting for a verdict on Harry Styles, truth is that a role with very little time to speak like this one probably gave him more of a chance to leave a good impression.
When thanked by a civilian distributing first aid items, one of the rescued soldiers mutters: “all we did was survive”, to which the man replies: “that’s enough”. The exchange somehow feels rather appropriate when thinking of Mr. Styles’ performance, but what matters the most, is how those memorable lines encapsulate the film’s thematic thread and the pointless nature of war itself.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia
Dunkirk is out in cinemas from July 21, 2017