Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running Time: 106 mins
Dunkirk is a British film about the last remnants of the Allied forces on the European mainland in early World War II, as German armies corner them onto the beaches of Dunkirk, leaving them to desperately evacuate the shore while completely exposed to the brutal fire of the enemy.
This is exactly what a war film should be. Christopher Nolan has proved himself time and time again to be a master of the most complex of genres, but what he does in Dunkirk is on another level, changing the very makeup of what a movie can be, and providing a relentless, bleak and unbelievably intense depiction of war that surpasses any film before it.
Dunkirk excels in almost every single aspect, but it’s clear that its biggest strength comes from the great man himself: Christopher Nolan. First off, this isn’t his typical sort of film. Apart from moving away from sci-fi for the first time in 15 years, it’s a much shorter and swifter affair, yet it retains the legendary intelligence, intensity and thrills that have made him such a great of modern cinema.
What’s most striking about Dunkirk is the fact that it’s so unlike any film you’ve ever seen. With no exposition in the first act of any sort, nor any explicit character or plot development throughout, it’s a relentless and unstoppable thriller literally from the very first second. What’s more is that it manages to provide an unbelievable level of intrigue in three interlinking stories surrounding the events of the evacuation, and is utterly intoxicating despite what seems on the surface like 100 minutes of explosions and fighting.
But while Nolan works wonders with the action here, keeping up the intensity of the battle at every single moment, it’s how he ties that in with the theme of war that makes Dunkirk so powerful. Over the years since the Second World War, there have been numerous ways of looking at the events that unfolded.
From the uplifting and patriotic British war films of the 1950s and 60s like The Dam Busters and The Great Escape, to the more modern and souring depictions like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, many movies have looked at war in so many different ways, but none has ever shown it in such a realistic and bleak manner, bringing to light the true trauma and horror of battle, all the while retaining a degree of hope and patriotism, such was the mood of the British and wider Allied forces of the time.
I wouldn’t call it a depressing film, and the dramatic intensity and action make it a thoroughly exhilarating watch, but the way it depicts the sheer hopelessness of being sitting ducks, totally stranded and surrounded by the enemy, is exceptional, giving a powerful portrayal of the emotional and mental distress that the bravest soldiers not only suffered during the battle, but also in the aftermath of such a traumatic week.
That sense of trauma and bleakness is further replicated in the film’s incredible cinematography. While it features sweeping shots of the northern French coast and the English Channel, everything about this film feels incredibly claustrophobic, yet it adds significantly to the intensity of the film as a whole.
Centring on no more than two or three characters in each of the three stories, you feel just as blocked in on the beaches of Dunkirk as the soldiers, as cramped in as a valiant RAF pilot, or as brave and simultaneously frightened as one of the civilians who travelled all the way across the Channel to help evacuate the beaches.
In that, we see the characters act in almost always the same settings. One man is sat inside a Spitfire for the entire movie, where we don’t even see his face, another is inside a boat for the entire duration, and the soldiers themselves are stuck on the desperate wasteland of the beach, never managing to find a way out, no matter how hard or how many times they try to escape.
On the whole, Dunkirk is quite an incredible film to witness. Demonstrating the truly masterful powers of director and writer Christopher Nolan by featuring revolutionary and unprecedented filmmaking and storytelling techniques that make for a dramatic intensity the likes of which you’ve never felt before, as well as proving what a war film should be: bleak, claustrophobic, intense and chaotic, it’s an absolute masterpiece of cinema, and one that will undoubtedly go down in years to come as one of the best pieces of war cinema in all of history, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.9.