After commencing his filmmaking journey with a low-budget neo-noir, making his breakthrough with a masterly crafted brain-teaser, resurrecting the dead & dusted franchise of a fallen hero, only to later transform it into its genre’s holy grail, spellbinding us with an extraordinary magic trick, planting an idea in our minds, and taking us on an intergalactic journey through spacetime, Christopher Nolan has garnered a massive fan base over the years, has given us some of the most memorable films of 21st century, and is undoubtedly the most bankable & popular filmmaker working in Hollywood today. And with Dunkirk, he cements all that, further solidifies his legacy, and then some more.
Dunkirk marks Nolan’s first attempt at historical filmmaking. And the story he settles on is the Dunkirk evacuation, a landmark event that often gets obscured by the countless unforgettable incidents that took place during World War II but nonetheless played a significant part in the final outcome. However, unlike other examples of its genre, the film doesn’t necessarily concern itself with the bloody aspects of combat but focuses on primal elements such as chaos, confusion, fear, frustration, panic & uncertainty to deliver a palpably tense, extremely riveting & absolutely relentless edge-of-the-seat experience that not only ranks amongst his finest directorial efforts but is also his most intense film to date.
Set in 1940 during the Second World War, Dunkirk recounts the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches & harbours of Dunkirk, after a colossal military disaster leaves 400,000 men from Belgium, France & the British Empire stranded & surrounded by the German army. Structured like a triptych, the plot is told from three perspectives — the land, sea & air, and is presented in a non-linear narrative. On land, it concerns a British private who’s desperately searching for ways to get off the beach, the sea segment is about a civilian who sails to Dunkirk by himself to rescue more soldiers, while events taking place in the air follow a Spitfire pilot who tries to shoot down the enemy planes before they can destroy the boats that are headed to the scene of evacuation.
Written, produced & directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is told from a trio of perspectives but those segments are not synchronised with time as Nolan stretches or shortens the differing spans for different parts, disperses them all over the picture, and then braids them together in a non-linear order. The scene continues switching from land to sea to air throughout its 106 minutes runtime but it doesn’t mean that what’s happening in a particular segment is concurrent with what occurs in the next one. It is an experimental arrangement but it’s also something that may not go well with every viewer, for some will consider it a gimmick that robs the story from having a cohesive structure that could have worked just as well.
The screenplay marks a welcome departure from the over-expository dialogues that plagued his previous few films as Nolan here relies on the visual & aural elements to build & amplify suspense. Also refreshing is the absence of genre clichés as Dunkirk defies the established tropes and neither packs the situational politics nor deals with the soldiers’ personal lives. There are no big heroics or patriotism or sentimentality to be found here. Instead, the film is fully invested in the now, focusing on the danger that lurks in the present, the lives that are on stake, and is simply about survival in the face of imminent death. It is far more observant, employs a sensory approach, and skilfully sustains its tense, gripping & foreboding aura from the first frame to the last.
Shot at the titular site, using era-authentic set pieces, and opting for practical effects over CGI, Dunkirk recreates the 1940 timeline in a meticulously detailed fashion while keeping all the hallmarks of a big-budget spectacle intact, and yet almost everything about it feels new & refreshing. Nolan once again raises the bar when it comes to IMAX photography, instilling a sense of grandeur & epic vibe to the images, capturing minutest of details in the sharpest clarity, with precision use of lighting & colour palette, while Hoyte van Hoytema’s serene operation of the camera makes sure that the images look beautiful at all times, despite the horror that unfolds on the celluloid. Editing is top-notch, keeps the intensity alive from start to finish, and never allows the audience to settle down.
The biggest contributor of all, however, is its stellar sound design & nerve-jangling soundtrack. Unsettling, unnerving & unrelenting, Hans Zimmer’s score is so deeply integrated & tightly woven into the picture that it feels inseparable from the visual, and plays an important role in keeping everything & everyone in a state of perpetual fear for the entirety of its runtime. It’s omnipresent, always in escalating mode, and is profoundly affecting on an emotional scale, so much that it transports us right into the middle of its action, allowing us to experience the graveness of the characters’ predicament by ourselves. The collaboration between Nolan & Zimmer has always had a symbiotic quality to it but this is where it’s at its best, for the visual & aural not only work as one but also augment each other.
Coming to the performances, Dunkirk features a predominantly British ensemble in Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy & Kenneth Branagh while also including newcomers such as Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney & Harry Styles, and all play their part expertly. While the individual inputs are no doubt strong, it’s the collective effort that leaves a more positive impression in the end. One may complain about the lack of character development but it really wasn’t required in this film’s case, for the story is about their shared plight, and not who they are. It is a deliberate decision by Nolan, but one that works out in the film’s favour. From the experienced cast, Hardy & Rylance are brilliant in their respective roles, while Whitehead impresses the most amongst the newcomers with a nearly silent showcase & apt use of expressions.
On an overall scale, Dunkirk is an ambitious, audacious & astounding cinema from Christopher Nolan that presents the esteemed auteur in sublime form, and in total control of his craft. An exceptionally powerful, thoroughly compelling & incredibly haunting experience that immerses its viewers into its grand spectacle with startling immediacy, Nolan’s latest venture is a thrilling, suspenseful & distinguished slice of first-rate craftsmanship that’s masterly directed, smartly scripted, gorgeously photographed, viciously paced, tightly edited, fiercely scored & splendidly performed. One of the best films of the year, one of the greatest examples of its genre, and certainly amongst the most accomplished works in the illustrious career of one of the most gifted & acclaimed filmmakers of our time, Dunkirk is an assured masterpiece that deserves to be experienced on the biggest screen possible. One hundred percent recommended.