Christopher Nolan may be a legendary filmmaker making his first, highly anticipated, historical war film, but one should not forget that his Dunkirk is not the first 2017 film to focus on the infamous battle: Their Finest also told that story, so is Nolan really so innovative? Obviously I’m kidding, and Nolan’s film is going to be amazing, so excuse my humour and please read on. (Also, Their Finest is a really fun film, if you’re interested).
Surrounded by the German Army, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are trapped on the beach of Dunkirk as they attempt to cross the Channel and return home. But as this proves more difficult than first imagined, these soldiers will have to rely on the strength of British civilians, as they enter a warzone to bring back their men. Despite this being one of Nolan’s shorter films, it doesn’t feel like a short movie; its continuously sombre tone and constant tension takes its emotional toll, so by the end the viewer is certainly emotionally drained.
That being said, it takes a while to get into the tension of the story. Nolan is experimenting with the temporal structure of the film; the three, at first separate, stories of the film are set one week, one day and one hour from the climactic events of the film, on the beach, on the water and in the air respectively. Though this is at first quite jarring, in terms of placing each of the characters in relation to each other, it does allow us to slowly get to know each set of characters. Nolan keeps us very unfamiliar with his characters, so they also take a while to earn your interest; but eventually you do enjoy them as a representation of the experience of real soldiers during the battle, as the actors give fantastic performances as an ensemble and accurately represent the universal experience of the soldiers as a group.
Ultimately, this slow build of character and story is successful in building great tension and working the three stories together. When they do collide it is both organic and super satisfying, resulting in a climactic third act that is full of action and character development, bittersweet relief and incredible tension, an intense culmination that is everything we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s storytelling. Characters come into their own: soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) becomes more protective, his mate Alex (Harry Styles) more emotional; pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) become heroes, and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) becomes more in tune with his men. Despite what little we know about them, we care so much about them, and more importantly, their plight to return safely home.
But what we expect more from Nolan is his visual mastery, and having seen this in 70mm, I can say he accomplishes that too. The bleak yet beautiful beaches and seas create such a brilliant blend of colour, and the landscape is simultaneously peaceful and threatening. His direction in this instance is timeless, and throughout the film there is an almost constant ticking clock as part of Hans Zimmer’s moving score. While his storytelling here is not as good as some of his other films, Dunkirk is his technical crowning achievement.
Dunkirk is a beautiful entry into a varied filmography; whilst distinctly different to the rest of Nolan’s films, it carries his precise knowledge of everything happening for a reason, whether it be exact turns of character, or moments that he crafts to make you feel a very specific, powerful way. And though not all of his efforts have the perfect effect he was after, all throughout Dunkirk you have the immensely gratifying feeling of a filmmaker who is in complete control.
Dunkirk has a a lot of newer names, but also some British powerhouses, so here’s my top five favourite films starring the cast of Dunkirk:
- Bridge of Spies – Mark Rylance
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – Kenneth Branagh
- Mad Max: Fury Road – Tom Hardy
- Batman Begins – Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy
- Inception – Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Christopher Nolan
Photos taken from IMDB.com: