It’s 1940, and the Allied armies are stranded on the shoreline stretching from Belgium to North France. As the German army approaches, Churchill sends the request to get the British soldiers back home expecting Hitler to hit at Britain after France. Under the endless fire of Luftwaffe, and the closed circle of the German army surrounding the allied soldiers, the soldiers proceed to the evacuation that was hailed a success by the press and a miracle by the wartime prime minister.
Christopher Nolan mastered his own brand of time, space and point of view: Interstellar tangled us between the different dimensions, Inception took us on a journey within the human conscience and The Dark Knight franchise was the best of Batman so far with its intriguing characterisation. And it’s no different with his new film: the different chapters of the story are a tight fit. We’re on the sea for a day, at the mole for a week and in the air for an hour, uncovering the crucial events in the crucial moments – they’re portrayed chronologically, and they’re stretched as necessary to keep the phenomenal pacing of the film.
Although we don’t really get to know the soldiers by their names, the group characterisation with a couple of characters that have their own experiences creates a broad picture of the evacuation. The fact that there are things they’re yearning to come back to remains the background motivation, and the fact that we don’t know them allows us to understand one archetypical character that emerges from the story. It might not be enough to get attached to them, but we sympathise with them in their fight for survival as they brace for dropping bombs and torpedoes finding their way in the waves of the Channel. It’s about the event rather than about the individual stories, and once we understand that, the individual characterisation becomes the tool that plugs into the broader picture without allowing the personal heroics to eclipse the true lead of this film.
Dunkirk doesn’t hit you with monologues and pompous words – its scarce dialogue drowns in the sounds of the environment instead, and the spoken word is kept to the minimum. However, that gives the actors a challenge on which they deliver spectacularly. Tom Hardy alongside Jack Lowden takes us into the journey through the blues distinguished only by the thin horizon line, with dramatic decisions made in the air. Mark Rylance as a brave captain of a civilian boat, who’s determined to save as many lives as he can, also delivers a heart-wrenching performance which is as powerful as Kenneth Branagh’s charismatic leader. Fionn Whitehead, stuck into the perpetual circle of escape attempts, is also delightful, and he certainly ends up in the good books of the mainstream cinema audience.
Their performances reveal more about human nature, too: Cillian Murphy’s frightened survivor is shell-shocked and doesn’t imagine returning to the living hell he’s experienced, Harry Styles (if you expected him to be as integrated into the plot as Ed Sheeran was in the Game of Thrones for some, you’ll be mistaken) turns to aggression when there’s somebody to be kicked out of the boat, and Rylance does everything in his power to take as many soldiers on the boat as he can. The reality of the war emerges clearly from those portrayals and feeds the collective patchwork of images that create such a poignant image of the battle.
The splendid editing serves the concept very well: we’re shown exactly as much as we need to see. The cinematography lets us explore the grandeur of the historical event: big explosions and aerial shots allow us to step into the lives of the soldiers surrounded on the shores of France and Belgium, and experience it along the soldiers desperate to return to England. Some historians say that the unexpected attack from the air defines the trauma experienced by those who lived through the second world war – and Dunkirk certainly helps us understand that. The explosions, drowning people, bodies brought back to the shore by the current intensify the immersive feeling of fear, putting us in the middle of unpredictable situations and desperate attempts of escape. Add sound design and Hans Zimmerman’s chilling score, and the thrilling image of one of the most important events of war on the British side syndicates even more feelings from the audience.
With its impressive cinematography and sound, brilliant timeline concept and a collective portrait that serves the description of the event amazingly, Dunkirk sets to be one of Nolan’s best films – but let’s be honest, has this guy ever done a remotely bad film?