Christopher Nolan is nothing short of a filmmaking genius. Everything he has made from Inception to Interstellar seems to turn to gold and for his latest achievement, he has turned the dial backwards on time and brought us one of the most pivotal moments in history. Dunkirk is a new standard for war films, unlike anything to have come from the past 17 years; I’d say that this is the best war film since Saving Private Ryan (1998), and also, one of the best war films ever made.
What sets it apart from the crowd is the unique structure it employs when telling a story. Christopher Nolan’s writing has always been very different and articulate whenever you compare it to other films and Dunkirk is no exception to that. There is no one set character to follow in this film; 3 different stories with different perspectives about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. 400,000 British troops surrounded by the German army; seemingly hopeless, they wait to be evacuated by any means necessary. The first story is The Mole (the beach), following 3 British privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) trying to get onto a boat to get across the channel back to Blighty. The second story is The Sea, following a Navy sanctioned weekend yacht captained by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) on their way to Dunkirk to rescue the soldiers trapped by the German Luftwaffe and pick up those who survived plane crashes and sinking boats. The final story is The Air, following Spitfire Pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) with their responsibility to shoot down Heinkel bombers and Messerschmitt’s.
With all of these different perspectives, you get a proper account of the whole situation at hand; the sheer scale of the forces involved, the confusion between soldiers awaiting rescue and the terror of being picked off by dive-bombers, it was a vast operation. But amidst all of that, there is heart-warming British patriotism, the hope and relief you see when ordinary civilians come to aid with their boats and the simpler acts of offering tea and helping to bury your fallen friends, there is real compassion and depth to the way the characters are portrayed on screen. Christopher Nolan has shown us all, indeed, the world that Dunkirk reminds us that when things look their worst, when we seem to be in a world of confusion and hate, there will always be hope, people will find a way to make things better.
And he does all of this whilst presenting the audience with a film that is actually shorter and less verbal than his previous films. With a runtime of 106 minutes, the images and expressions of the soldiers tell more than their dialogue. Speaking of the soldiers, the performances of this film are perhaps the best of any film by Christopher Nolan. Both Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard portray the sense of confusion and rationality as they battle through the surf and blood of fallen soldiers to get home. Mark Rylance is the voice of hope, doing everything he can to save those in trouble, Kenneth Branagh is the voice of reason, relaying to the audience the scope of the situation and reassuring us that home is coming. As for Tom Hardy, he is the action hero of the film, shooting down Messerschmitt’s in his Spitfire, shining bright in the sky and before I finish, I’d like to say that, yes, Harry Styles can really act; he performance definitely stands out and you’ll know when you see it.
The acting and story in this film is enough to leave you breathless from start to finish, and then we get to what Christopher Nolan is really good at; making worlds come to life with expert precision and craftsmanship. There is barely an ounce of CGI in this film, not a single piece of green-screen, all the effects that you see in this film are for real. Spitfire’s dogfighting with Messerschmitt’s, explosions on the decks of ships, the sinking of the ships themselves, the bombing of the beaches the firefights in the town of Dunkirk, it feels very visceral and so much more, alive than any other film this year. On top of all that, Dunkirk feels very, British.
Most of the great war films of the 21st Century have centred around the American armed forces, no matter what period of time they appear to be in. But this, this is about the British army, British civilians, the principles of this film are very British, as is the production design. You only need to listen to the way this film sounds to know that this feels very special; the sound of Merlin engines firing away in Spitfires, the alarms on the ships taking the soldiers home, the sound of a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle being loaded and fired and even the sounds of soldiers huddled together, trying to hide from the enemy. Do you what it sounds like? A war film, it has familiarity to it, that is, until we get to the score.
Hans Zimmer has collaborated with Christopher Nolan for 12 years now and for most of last year, he has spent his time making the score for Dunkirk. He hasn’t gone for the traditional adventure or operatic feel of war films like in Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Hacksaw Ridge (2016); this has a more electronic and bombastic feel, it is also, loud, properly loud. Don’t think however that this detracts any feeling to the film, if anything, it heightens all forms of emotion and feeling that the characters are feeling. The predominant feeling is one of tension; when soldiers first get on a boat or when a plane is about to dive-bomb, you can feel every last little note that the score is pounding into you. But the best feeling is the one that stays with you for the whole film; hope. This is thanks to Hans Zimmer incorporating segments of music from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, specifically Nimrod; it makes you feel proud to be British, proud to know that we, a small island, was willing to risk everything to save our soldiers in distress.
The only thing that could dwarf the impact of the music in this film, is the sheer scale of what Christopher Nolan was willing to do to make this film possible. He and production designer Nathan Crowley reconditioned boats that took part in the evacuation, used vintage Spitfires and Messerschmitt’s for the dogfights in the air, gave the town of Dunkirk a facelift of fire and sandbags all to make sure the atmosphere and authenticity of this film was perfect. The fact that everyone was even willing to go the extra mile and film in storms and places that would otherwise be considered dangerous is a testament to what the spirit of the evacuation is.
Production on this film was clearly titanic in size, but that is nothing, compared to how this film looks. I was privileged to see this film in IMAX 70mm celluloid at the Printworks in Manchester and I can say, hand on heart, it has been one of the best-looking films I have ever seen. Hoyte van Hoytema really pushed the boat out with shooting this film in only large format cameras, with 75% of the film shot in the full IMAX aspect ratio with IMAX cameras, the rest in standard 65mm. The colours that IMAX shows, the detail, the texture, the grain, the fact that they managed to use these colossal instruments handheld, is truly astonishing. There are some shots, particularly towards the end of the film that are some of the most beautiful and impacting shots I’ve seen in cinema. Coupled with the non-linear editing of Lee Smith, Dunkirk is a visual sensation, that demands to be seen in IMAX 70mm.
Like all war films, there are scenes that are not for the faint hearted; soldiers missing body parts, blood pouring from their faces, oil staining their uniforms, the evacuation was no without casualties. Despite that, it all looks incredibly realistic, in the same way that the effects and makeup in Saving Private Ryan (1998) was realistic, and even more remarkable when you consider they had to do this for over 6,000 extras. The lengths people have gone to, to make this film a reality, is a story worth telling of itself, but that for another time.
We battled Jerry for weeks, showing him that we, as a nation was not prepared to let the worst happen. Dunkirk is an example of the everyday heroism that is desperately needed in a climate like today’s. Christopher Nolan has now etched his name in movie history as one of the all-time great modern filmmakers. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, go and see it now, and especially in IMAX, it is worth every penny.
I give this film, obviously, a 10/10!