It is 1940, 400,000 allied troops are cornered and cut off on the beaches of Dunkirk, and with the enemy closing in, with no cover or defence, they await annihilation or a miracle. Many should be familiar with the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, so the outcome to which we are headed may not be a surprise. For those going in cold, however, if you need more than this information to get on board with a film, this one may not be for you; a brief setup via title cards is all Nolan is willing to provide before dropping us into hell. There are no backstories, description of home or family lives; no cuts to politicians explaining things, no generals debating around maps, and barely a memorable name among our company. It should be noted, this is not some major directorial mis-step, but an obviously conscious choice, and if you don’t “get it”, I’m afraid this is on you. Serving a notion not dissimilar to that of his first hit, Memento, we experience the moment as the characters do, without unnecessary exposition, or dialogue! Indeed, this proves quite the departure for Nolan; there is a lot here that owes more to silent cinema than anything else, but like Hitchcock, Lean or Kubrick, his images often say everything: A soldier giving up hope, walking into the sea in a sad effort to swim to a visible home, a nod of the head or look on the face of a masterly actor, or a lingering shot on the lock of a boat cabin door give us all we need.
An opening frame invites us to join a small group of helpless, stranded soldiers as they pick from the air enemy propaganda, informing them they are surrounded. Next, the loudest onslaught of gunfire kicks the film into another gear! We are given as much pause for thought as the soldiers we follow. We run with Tommy, played by a Fionn Whitehead, and like him, we are aware of comrades falling dead next to us, but it is all panic and no time; we will lament their loss later. Set to the ticking of a watch, we feel Tommy’s heart pounding with ours, (in IMAX, quite literally!), and we know the tone for this audacious movie has been set. It is honestly quite a terrifying opening sequence, and we sense the next 90 minutes is likely to be an anxious ride. And it certainly proves to be the case; do not expect to sit still with this one, and try to remember how to breathe as you watch the attempts at survival by these young men, with Nolan allowing for very little let-up in pace.
We see the event from different perspectives and, it will surprise few Nolan fans, from within different time frames. Right now, not many a director can build tension and momentum like Nolan, with what he calls the “snowball effect”, and here there is no exception. The jumping to and from different characters’ point of view, the corkscrew impression created by the editing, chaos layered upon chaos, events echoed and accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s Shepherd’s Tones and appropriately persistent, unrelenting, sometimes suffocating music, acting at times more like sound design; it all results in a constant rise in tension, again akin to Hitchcock, to the point of almost being exhaustive. At less than two hours, this whole thing feels like the last act of one of Nolan’s previous efforts, and there is certainly the sense at the end, with the catharsis found, that we may not have been able to handle much more.
We saw this "snowball effect" previously, put to particularly effective use in Inception, but here, it serves another purpose, and perhaps a higher one, which I suspect might be lost on some of its harsher critics. The “Miracle of Dunkirk” is a grand story, with every soldier, every pilot, and every civilian having their own point of view. Nolan wants us to build a picture of the event purely through subjective experience, so of course we spend a tiring, slowly cut week with the terrified boys. Of course we spend a desperate day with a fisherman, as he and his familial crew sail their way into action. Lastly, given the fuel constraints of the RAF, whose decisions had to be immediate and impulsive, always making a choice between defending the beach or getting home, why would we spend any more that an edge-of-your-seat, quickly-cut hour in the cockpit of a Spitfire, as they do their duty, entering into dogfights to keep the German aircrafts at bay?
Each timeline is contracted or dilated to give everybody equal measure and importance, whilst staying true to and very much in their situation. Yes, this means we’re kept on our toes; we have moments of confusion as timelines cross over, and we see the same thing happening from another point of view, but as we head into the finale, as well as the aforementioned tension and release (which is just exciting cinema), we also get to see how, despite very different perspectives, everyone is working together, and how sacrifice and struggle for duty is par for the course for all involved, whether other people know it or not. It is important that we, the audience, recognise this bigger picture, and as everything clicks together in an emotive final convergence of efforts, we not only see the justification for the techniques adopted, but struggle to imagine the story told another way. That is, at least, without going down a standard route, with objective storytelling employed.
I have thought it before, and I have to say it again: I do not envy Nolan's editor, Lee Smith.
A proper review not being complete without comment on the elephant in the room, it must be said that Harry Styles does not stand out like the proverbial sore thumb at all. Frankly, he carries his scenes well enough that I simply forgot I was watching a pop idol acting. Surely, following the Heath Ledger lesson, and now this, it is time we learned that, maybe, Christopher Nolan just knows what he’s doing better that we do?
As to the other big names, they are partly the reason moments remain with me so long after having seen it: Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance can say so much with so little, their faces alone often doing the heavy lifting to deliver a lot of the human emotion, and it would appear Tom Hardy has Oscar-worthy eyes! You need see nothing more than his eyes through the course of his drama to get a complete sense of the type of man his Farrier is. We talk about great acting and achieving realism through imagination, but with the knowledge that Nolan actually took everyone to Dunkirk, sailed real ships, sank real ships, flew real Spitfires overhead, employed real explosions on the beach, and even rejected green screen and CGI in favour of cardboard cut-outs, it seems imagination wasn’t too necessary for these already consummate actors.
So, the summation? How you respond to this film depends, to some degree, on what you bring to it. Nolan's principle fan base, with the surest grasp of his approach, will be well prepared for what they get; but with his insistence on holding back from the audience any perspective not afforded his characters, ala Memento, a reasonable knowledge of the "Miracle Of Dunkirk" might put the more casual viewer in better stead. Regardless of which camp you fall into, or indeed of whether or not the movie does it for you, certain things are for sure: With no melodrama or cheese, and no superfluous fluff or emotional subterfuge, Dunkirk is a quintessentially British and purely experiential movie, a technical marvel of a war film unlike any other I can name. It also stands as another bright beacon in Nolan's career, characterised, as always, by his desire to cultivate a smart audience, willing to keep up with him.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a key moment in world history that is often overlooked; a disaster averted which, had it not been, would have seen the history books written very differently. Regardless of what flaws one may find with the film, that this event has been marshalled by a confident and sincere director, who has surely by now cemented his name alongside those of his own heroes, is reason enough to see Dunkirk.
See it if you like: A completley immersive, subjective experience unlike any other war film