Unfolding in a tight, heart-thumpingly tense 106 minutes, Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his micro-budget debut Following in 1998. It’s also his most absorbing, arresting and visually astounding film yet. Stripping away much of the sci-fi frills and mind-bending trickery that has defined the writer-director’s career this far, Dunkirk zeroes in on an emotionally devastating story of ordinary men trapped in an extraordinary bid for survival that will pin you to your seat and leave you breathless and paralysed by the sheer weight of its clockwork calculated tension.
The restrained filming style is by no means an indication of dimmed ambitions on Nolan’s part. Filmed on the sands and seas surrounding the real-life Dunkirk, this film is another technical triumph for the filmmaker. Every single detail of every frame has been exhaustively researched, with period-correct Spitfires and British naval destroyers painstakingly assembled to add to the movie’s verisimilitude. Even the taut, dizzying set-pieces have been executed with a metronomic precision.
Seemingly taking inspiration from Winston Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech made in the aftermath of the disastrous Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk splits the action between three individual storylines set on land, air and sea.
There’s Finn Whitehead’s petrified young private who, along with many thousands of British soldiers, finds himself stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches, hemmed in on all sides by the advancing Nazi forces, as he desperately searches for a way to get home. Mark Rylance plays an ageing mariner who bravely sets sail across the Channel to rescue our boys after the Royal Navy commandeers private boats to aid their efforts. And then there’s Tom Hardy’s ice cool Spitfire pilot, racing through the skies to protect the approaching British flotillas from ruthless air raids by German bombers.
All three of these harrowing journeys unfold in their own timelines – Whitehead spends a week in Dunkirk waiting for rescue, Rylance’s voyage lasts a day, and Hardy’s flight takes place of the course of just one hour – with only fleeting intersections until they ultimately collide in an intensely incendiary finale.
The overall effect of this time-wimey trickery is strikingly immersive, deftly reflecting the frighteningly bewildering environment British troops found themselves trapped in 1940. Like them, we have hardly any idea of what’s happening around us, how much time has passed or even what time of day it is – our only focus is on how these men will make it out alive.
What makes events feel so immediate and visceral is Nolan’s claustrophobic direction. With the action shot largely in unflinching close-ups, we’re dropped right into the heat of the battle as Luftwaffe planes scream down from the skies and enemy fire erupts from every direction. These sounds are raised to almost deafening levels, you can feel the rumble of missile strikes and the rattle of gunfire reverberate through your bones.
Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer’s ferociously evocative score, with it’s ticking pocket watch and endlessly ascending Shepherd’s tone, drags you to the edge of your seat unable to look away. It’s as close as you’d care to get to actually being on those beaches with the grey, restless ocean sloshing at your boots.
The bare bones filmmaking style extends to the main cast, too. With almost no dialogue for the entire duration, the characters are unburdened by intricate backstories or complex emotional arcs – they’re completely unnecessary. Rather, the story is told firmly in the present moment, with the character’s emotions – be it fear, desperation, selfishness or selflessness – relayed through their actions rather than their words.
This is perhaps Nolan’s biggest achievement with Dunkirk: eschewing the excessive sentimentality or chest-thumping heroics typical of war movies. Here it’s the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that carry the most weight, whether its a boy telling a white lie to a shell-shocked soldier or a tommy gratefully grasping a bottle of beer from a cheering local. When the visuals are as devastating, exhilarating and powerfully moving as these, stories really don’t need anything else.
Runtime: 106 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh