Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Length: 1hr 46m
I remember discussing with people, before the release of Christopher Nolan’s new historical epic, the inclusion in the cast of One Direction lead Harry Styles. I remember thinking how, with any other director, this may have seemed like stunt casting, since it’s not often, these days, that a historical drama will be a major summer blockbuster. Recent years have seen cinema usually dominated more by the likes of superhero or sci-fi franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Dark Knight trilogy. It was always clear with this film however, that there would never have been any need for such stunt casting to draw people in, since, despite his fame, Styles was never the big name attached to this film, nor indeed were any of the rest of the cast; despite it including huge stars like Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh. This film has a huge amount of hype attached to it from the start not for its cast, or for its place in any franchise, but because of the director. Since films like The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has become one of the most well-known directors out there, following up that hugely successful superhero flick with equally great hits like Inception and Interstellar. Despite what you actually think of any one of his films, there is perhaps no other director since the likes of Spielberg and Tarantino who has so often and so successfully been able to attract both huge numbers and critical acclaim. It’s for curiosity at what Nolan delivers next that Dunkirk has already, in the UK at least, outperformed the likes of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, and quite deservedly so. Indeed, this may well be Nolan’s finest film thus far.
Nolan has crafted a film that is utterly convincing in its portrayal of the horrors of war.
Despite the breath-taking visuals and stunning technical set-ups he’s always been a master of, many of his films have also always had a few flaws. Whilst it’s less the case with earlier works like Memento or Batman Begins, others such as The Dark Knight or Interstellar have often felt overlong and convoluted. Interstellar, whilst more often than not being genuinely moving and impressive, is also the sort of movie which you really have to commit to, not just in keeping track of the intricacies of the plot and its sci-fi concepts,
but also simply in its length and scope. It’s become rather a trope of Nolan’s that his films
are never entirely linear, they will usually follow varying strands and can appear quite
convoluted. Technically impressive, but not always remarkable beyond that. Dunkirk is very different however. It feels less stretched out than epics like Interstellar; not only in that its runtime is far shorter, but also its story is much more self-contained, and is all the better for that. It does still, like other Nolan films, follow different strands, in different lengths of time, zipping from the actual evacuation of troops over a week, to the civilian boats that helped the evacuation effort over the course of a day, to an hour-long series of dogfights between British and German aircraft. But at its heart these are all telling the relatively simple story of how the British army was evacuated from Dunkirk, and as a result feels far more grounded. Rather than something we’re struggling to keep straight in our heads à la Inception or Memento, it helps to highlight all the different aspects of the evacuation in relation to each other. It also adds more dramatic weight, retaining the suspense in each strand rather than spending ages on one then abruptly switching to another as the action moves from the coast to the sea.
It is in this air of suspense, and its authentic recreation of each arena of combat that truly
makes Dunkirk shine. Whereas films like Interstellar or The Dark Knight Rises did drag at times, Dunkirk, as much a disaster movie as a war movie, has you on the edge of your seat throughout. It’s rare to find a war movie that is as truly evocative of the horrors of war. Nolan gets up close and personal, taking us into the tight, trapped interior of a sinking ship, a rapidly flooding downed Spitfire, or, horrifyingly, soldiers trapped underneath burning oil, having to choose between drowning or burning. The use of real planes and boats, as opposed to simply employing CGI throughout helps add a degree of authenticity often missing from modern movies. Perhaps most important of all is Hans Zimmer’s score, which in fact does just as much as the direction and the acting to draw you in. Zimmer has
arranged a jerking, almost sickening score that matches the constant whining of Stuka’s in
putting you on edge.
In summary, Nolan has crafted a film that is utterly convincing in its portrayal of the horrors of war, and its recreation of just how disastrously it seemed the war had gone overall. The constant yet rarely seen threat of the German army, the terrifying and deadly assaults from the air by German aircraft, the propaganda posters dropped by the Germans informing British troops “you are surrounded” all help ground the viewer in the atmosphere of an army on the retreat, of a war being lost. With the focus tightly on this, and a capable and varied cast, this is a film that is far more immersive than most of Nolan’s other films, and indeed, most other war films. ‘War movies’ aren’t quite as common today as in the past, when the World Wars were much closer in the collective memory, yet Dunkirk shows just how gripping they can be, when as much talent goes into them as has here. It truly feels like you’re there, and it is utterly terrifying. Not only is this then perhaps Nolan’s best film to date, but it may well go down as one of the best portrayals of warfare in cinema.