“A MASTERCLASS IN FILMMAKING!”
Written & Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written and directed by acclaimed British-American filmmaker Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk paints a vivid account of one of Britain’s most celebrated historical events. Set in the year 1940, Nolan’s latest venture tells the harrowing tale of Operation Dynamo: the ‘miracle’ that allowed for the evacuation of 400,000 beleaguered British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk (Dunkerque, France) in the midst of an air raid by the German Luftwaffe. With a diverse ensemble of British A-listers and Hollywood newcomers, Dunkirk focuses on its tide-turning subject with such pounding, pitiless conviction that it is impossible not to lose oneself in its expansive ingenuity.
Adopting a non-linear, triptych format that is narrated through three perspectives – land, air and sea – this World War II epic is a tense but thrilling tale of survival, fear, and the enormous fortitude of the human spirit.
On land, protagonist Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) survives a German attack and escapes to Dunkirk’s beaches, where he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). Together, the two teenaged soldiers find and join the Allied troops readying for evacuation, overseen by Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) and the pier-master Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh).
On the sea, the British Navy requisitions private boats to aid in this mass evacuation across the English Channel. In an effort to save as many soldiers as possible, patriotic mariner Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young helper George (Barry Keoghan) decide to commandeer their boat into the warzone by themselves.
Flying high above them all, three Royal Air Force pilots including Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) provide air support to the stranded soldiers awaiting rescue at Dunkirk.
Barely ten minutes into the film, it becomes apparent that Dunkirk favours action over words, allowing sound (Michael Mitchell) and visuals (production design: Nathan Crowley; VFX: Double Negative) to form a terrifyingly realistic atmosphere around its characters’ silence. A cacophony of thunderous bombs, zipping gunfire and screeching engines builds tension and drama without the need for dialogue, hammering in the ‘ticking clock’ that is palpable throughout the film.
While the screenplay’s decidedly sparse dialogue enables viewers to immerse themselves in the film, it is also a setback for natural character development. Although each performer – A-listers and extras alike – is believable and remarkably well-cast (John Papsidera; Toby Whale), Dunkirk’s characterization is far too simplistic to generate a satisfactory emotional response. It is this lack of humanism and Whitehead’s consistently deadpan delivery (which works for most of the film but also tears away any potential emotion in key scenes) that strips the film of soul, replacing this conventionally core component with more physical, visual elements.
Although viewers are unable to form strong enough connections with most of Dunkirk’s characters, the film’s secondary motifs are expressed with skill. On several occasions, Nolan’s screenplay effectively voices moral issues without the need for dialogue. While Whitehead’s Tommy grapples with the unspoken conflict between patriotism and integrity, Hardy and Rylance convey heart-wrenching depth and drama solely through their eyes. With the omission of heavy dialogue, every gesture, twitch and grimace carries weight, and each moment in this film feels significant and well placed.
While the film chronicles the events on Dunkirk between May 26, 1940 – June 3, 1940 in vivid detail, it does not portray the activities preceding this event. It makes no mention of Belgium or Holland, does not dwell on Winston Churchill and solemn-faced Generals in stuffy war rooms, and consciously avoids presenting German soldiers on screen. Dunkirk is a single-quest undertaking and Nolan is unapologetic in his stone-cold focus in this pursuit. Much like its approach to dialogue, this, too, serves as a double-edged sword, for while this fierce emphasis is one of Dunkirk’s greatest strengths, it also weighs down its characters as empty vessels ferrying an inflexible script across land, sea and air.
Aided by jaw-dropping cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema) and an exceptional score (Hans Zimmer), Dunkirk fuses sound and image to deliver what will soon be hailed as a cinematic masterclass. While Hoytema expertly weaves texture and authenticity to layer into the film’s melancholic tone, Zimmer breathes life into it with a nervous pizzicato of frayed violins, rousing synthesizers and unrelenting clock samples that will ruffle even the calmest of listeners. Handheld cameras enforce the claustrophobia of Tommy’s desperation, concentrating on real locations, planes and boats to deliver an organic experience. Wide, vibrant shots of Dunkirk’s beaches in immaculate IMAX 70mm make this film a breathtakingly immersive journey.
Excellent war films are traditionally focused on nuanced character development and their emotional journeys, its players on one side of the screen and viewers on the other. Dunkirk, on the other hand, grabs moviegoers by the eyeballs and thrusts them into a heart-pounding warzone. Its characters are mere pawns, the chessboard a perilous chasm of violence, chance, loyalty and hope.
Dunkirk is brutal, ambitious and sincere, and its auteur’s propensity for pushing the boundaries of contemporary cinema has paid off yet again. In what is sure to earn several Oscar nods, Christopher Nolan has produced a unique form of entertainment that is so remarkable it must be studied almost forensically.
True to history, Dunkirk ends with both victory and defeat, leaving viewers wholly electrified and yet vaguely unfulfilled. Nolan has turned the story of a single battle into a symphony of sensory delight with piercing, clockwork precision. It is a war story without a hint of blood or gore; a tale of suffering and belief without conversation. Nolan hones the film’s strengths into a meticulously choreographed spectacle, creating a magnificent display of horror and courage through psychological suspense and silence.
Overall, it is most certainly worth a watch, if not a riveting study in filmmaking.