Hebe Hamilton reviews Christopher Nolan’s World War 2 action thriller.
‘Dunkirk’. This is what greets the audience as Christopher Nolan’s latest film opens. There are no opening credits to lead us in gradually, no music, nor a mention of Nolan’s name. The lone title, white words on a black background, signal that this is a war film like no other – that the story to come will be honest, unembellished, and to the point.
The world has waited three years for Nolan’s latest film, since the widely acclaimed Interstellar in 2014. Make no mistake, Dunkirk is a different beast entirely from his previous efforts. Nolan is best known for his work in the action and sci-fi genres, and for good reason: films like The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar have changed the way people think about time, space, humanity, and even the Batman franchise.
This time, there is no place for the special effects and characterisation that triumphed in Nolan’s previous films. Dunkirk is a re-telling of historical events. There is nowhere for the production team to hide. But this is where Nolan has succeeded in going above and beyond the work of his predecessors in the war genre. He does not rely on heroes to tell his story, or crude levels of violence and gore to shock his audience. Instead, adopting a minimalist approach, he has let history tell the story on his behalf.
The opening sequence, featuring the surround-sound effects of gunfire, immediately places the audience within the war-ravaged French town of Dunkirk. We are less observers than extras within the scene itself, as we watch the first protagonist (Fionn Whitehead) run for safety and the infamous beaches of Dunkirk. He is later joined by Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard in supporting roles, as the camera pans to reveal the other 400,000 evacuee soldiers awaiting their fate on the shoreline, where they lie vulnerable and exposed to German Messerschmitt gunfire and bombs.
From this point onwards, Nolan’s plot creates tension by focusing on three distinct, but key, locations of the Dunkirk evacuation: The Mole – the beach and pier where the soldiers await evacuation; The Sea – which combines home efforts from both sides of the English Channel; and The Air – where British Spitfires and German Messerschmitts meet in a foreshadowing of the Battle of Britain and Blitzkreig to come.
Dialogue is few and far between, and names are mentioned sparingly. This is not a story for individual heroes. Dunkirk emphasises that the experiences of Nolan’s protagonists were the experiences of the masses. In times of war, people are insignificant on their own.
The enemy also remains mysterious and undefined. Apart from Messerschmitt planes and one ending sequence we do not see any German soldiers, and when we do their faces remain blurred. The screenplay emphasises the word ‘enemy’ as opposed to ‘the Germans’, perhaps an underlying comment on the ways warfare destroys humanity.
Dunkirk’s story is told through masterful camera and sound effects, alternating between the land, sea, and air. Notable sequences include submerging camera effects to emphasise the sinking of the naval ships, and the use of specially adapted IMAX cameras, attached to the cockpit of the Spitfires, to create a viewpoint from the front of the plane. The latter has never been achieved by a filmmaker until this point, signifying Nolan’s expert creative vision and experience in pushing the boundaries of filmmaking.
Hans Zimmer’s score provides a powerful backdrop to the unfolding drama. For the most part the music is abstract, an obscure mixture of sounds to accompany the gunfire and bombing. But at two significant points in the film the score comes into its own: once when the fleet of British civilian boats are seen heading towards Dunkirk to save the soldiers (emphasised further by the facial expressions conveyed excellently by Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton), the other at the climax of the story when the soldiers arrive back in Britain; both to an adaptation of ‘Nimrod’ – one of the most recognisable passages of classical music by Edward Elgar, who is one of Britain’s most beloved composers.
It is unfortunate there were not more panoramic shots of the Dunkirk beach to emphasise the sheer volume of men stranded there. The number 400,000 is repeated by the senior officers, played wonderfully by Branagh and James D’Arcy, yet we rarely are given a visual idea of that volume of soldiers during the film. Nevertheless, Nolan can rest assured that his latest offering is arguably the greatest masterpiece of his career so far. That this is one of his shortest films, at one hour and forty seven minutes, indicates the director and his production team have succeeded in conveying the power of this pivotal historical event without sensationalising the evidence.
Dunkirk is out in UK cinemas now – we strongly recommend seeking out the IMAX 70mm experience at London’s BFI IMAX and the Science Museum if possible. See the main trailer below: