Arts and Entertainment’s Co-Editor, Victoria Brown.
This film is breath-taking. I have been a fan of Christopher Nolan since the beginning of his career, and Dunkirk is definitely his best film to date. His combination of interconnecting temporal plots, astonishing cinematography, and an intense score, provided by his long-time collaborator Hanz Zimmer, makes Dunkirk a haunting film that will stay with you for days after seeing it on the big screen. That is also something that I must emphasise – see this film in the cinema. Every single review you will read will push and push this. See it on the biggest screen possible because it will not have the same impact on a television or laptop screen. You will understand when you see it.
War films are not my go-to viewing preference. Usually I avoid them because they either glorify violence, or they focus on a melodramatic relationship that arguably takes away from the devastating reality of the event. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour happens to do both. Dunkirk doesn’t do either. It is different in that most military pictures portray a heroism that seems beyond human capability, even if the film sticks to a true story. Dunkirk focuses instead on what humans can endure. Harry Styles’ character sums it up at the end of the film, “All we did was survive.” To which a civilian replies, “Sometimes that’s enough.” People like to think that if they were a soldier they would be daring and brave, but what Dunkirk does is capture the horrifying reality of war.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, don’t worry, it’s simple. Eight months into World War II, 400,000 British soldiers are stranded on a beach in Northern France. They have Nazi’s behind them, and a vast open sea ahead of them. “You can almost see it,” Kenneth Branagh’s character muses, “Home.” This motif runs throughout the short film, a mere 106 minutes. There is no focus on individual fears or worries about loved ones, it is all about the intensity of rescuing these soldiers.
Nolan intercuts between three connected timelines. The first is “The Mole.” Here, the audience follows Tommy, a young soldier who is on land for a week. That is what struck me the most, how young these men are. My brain couldn’t begin to comprehend their horror. The second is “The Sea,” following a patriotic yachter who is determined to help his fellow Englishmen get home. His part of the story is one day long. The final timeline is “The Sky,” where we follow two British pilots fighting the Luftwaffe who are terrorising the soldiers both at sea and on the beach for one hour. This choice to interconnect these three narratives has an almost sickening effect, in that each one brings us closer to an intense climax, when the perspectives converge at the end of the film.
“The Mole” story focuses on the horror on land. The cinematography here is beyond description, you have to see it to understand. It captures the vastness of the situation without overemphasising its grandeur for the sake of it. Three times, young Tommy tries and fails to board a ship to take him home. That’s all he wants; to go home. Nolan draws on a universal understanding of humanity here because we all know what it is like to want to return to safety, whether you are British or German. By making their ultimate goal to get home, rather than focusing on military film motifs like infiltrating enemy camps, the audience can relate to each individual soldier. I personally think that this makes the terror of Dunkirk more powerful, rather than if Nolan had chosen to focus on the personal narrative of an individual.
Worth mentioning in this part of the story is Harry Styles. I was extremely dubious when I heard that Nolan had cast the One Direction frontman, and I was worried that the cinema would be filled with young girls who just wanted to see him. But what worried me most was his acting ability. Far too many models and singers are venturing into acting lately and while some have done incredible jobs, like Cara Delevingne, I didn’t have much faith in the young singer. I was pleasantly surprised, even impressed. One of the things you will notice in the film is that it almost runs like a silent film, with dialogue being little more than functional. But when Styles’ character does speak, it makes a powerful impact. His performance is simple, raw, and suited to the tone of the film. Credit where credit is due.
The running motif of young actors is emphasised by bigger actors who play supporting roles. Cillian Murphy, credited only as ‘shivering soldier,’ plays a shell-shocked man rescued by the patriotic yachter, who is played by Mark Rylance. While having minimal impact on the plot, for me his sequence was the most emotional, and as close to real wartime representation as we can hope to get on screen. His scene broke my heart. Tom Hardy’s scenes, on the other hand, are incredibly badass. Hardy performs from behind a pilot’s mask as he takes down the Luftwaffe. Nolan achieves a sense of intense reality with Hardy’s scenes because he opted for real shots of Spitfires above real shores, rather than relying on CGI. It is mesmerising to watch on a big screen. His scenes are intense, but they fill you with such an immense sense of pride in him that you have to restrain yourself from punching the air with joy whenever he takes down a plane.
Lastly, you can’t review a Nolan film and not mention Hanz Zimmer. I’ve been a fan of Zimmer’s since his creation of Heath Ledger’s legendary ‘Joker’s theme’ for The Dark Knight, so I was very excited to see what he could do with a wartime context. I was not disappointed. The sound design, depending on the scene, is either so haunting that you hold your breath from the tension, or it is thunderous and terrifying. One specific scene, where the young soldiers are making their way to a stranded boat, the score builds and drops with a sound that is almost like how below the deck of a boat would naturally sound. It adds a bizarre sense of the fantastical and realistic. I highly recommend giving it a listen in isolation from the film. It is truly haunting.
Nolan’s wartime epic is worth an Oscar. I urge you, see this film. It is an important addition to wartime cinema.