In the midst of early World War II, more than 300,000 British soldiers (plus another 100,000 or so French and Belgian troops) find themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, a small coastal town in northern France. Forced out of the surrounding areas by the Germans, the men (and women) are essentially sitting ducks, in the worst possible predicament.
The Dunkirk harbour is far too shallow for a full naval rescue. Their comrades are not coming for them. With nowhere to go and no salvation in sight, the soldiers seemingly have nothing to do but wait. Wait to be captured by the incoming German soldiers, marching their way towards the beaches. Wait to die by the onslaught of Luftwaffe planes flying overhead, randomly dropping bombs on the trapped soldiers. Or wait for a miracle that may never eventuate.
In a cruel twist of irony, the soldiers can practically see their homeland, with England so devastatingly close at only 26-miles away across the English Channel. But back home, help is on its way. The call has gone out to any civilian boats in the vicinity to come to the soldiers’ aid and attempt a desperate evacuation and rescue mission. A miracle is needed to save the war. A miracle is coming.
In Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan crafts this tale of incredible anguish and gut-wrenching peril through three perspectives via characters on land, out at sea, and up in the air. In true Nolan style, these three storylines bend the confines of chronological times lines (confusing, at first, but it all makes sense eventually), ultimately combining in an ingenious way I dare not spoil.
On land, British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) introduces us to the chaos along the beaches, after barely escaping the clutches of the Third Reich on the streets of Dunkirk. Joining with another soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), Tommy attempts to make his way onto one of the last remaining boats in the harbour. Things don’t quite work out, and the pair are left back on the beach, along with newfound chum, Alex (a surprisingly great Harry Styles). From here, all sorts of hell breaks loose.
Out at sea, Mr. Dawson (a typically wonderful Mark Rylance) answers the call for civilian vessels, and charters his “pleasure seeker” along the English Channel towards Dunkirk. Along for the journey are his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan). When their boat rescues a stranded soldier (Cillian Murphy, in wonderful form) from a sunken ship, the trio will face a difficult emotional battle before they’ve even reached the war.
And up in the air, two lone Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy, face obscured by a mask again) and Collins (Jack Lowden), desperately attempt to defend those stranded on the beaches by taking down the onslaught of attacking German Luftwaffe bombers. The two men engage in staggering dogfights, as they play the most dizzying games of cat-and-mouse with their German enemies. But there’s one major problem – Farrier is getting low on fuel.
Nolan, a true master of storytelling, weaves these three narratives so perfectly seamlessly, even before the audience is full understanding the chronological timeline of the events. He allows us to fully experience the entire Dunkirk evacuation from multiple perspectives which creates an overwhelmingly immersive cinematic experience, unlike any war film before. Its his distinct narrative style, devoid of the usual pomp and circumstance associated with this genre, that makes Dunkirk such a deeply faithful re-telling of a major moment in world history.
Given its summer-time release in the US, there are aspects of Dunkirk which have all the grandiose spectacle of a big summer blockbuster. The aerial sequences are utterly thrilling, with the camera giving the audience a frightening bird’s eye view from the cockpit. Nolan rightfully rejects CGI and green screen, and the level of realism and physical filmmaking here is remarkable. Likewise with his use of actual boats/ships and thousands of extras for the sea and ground scenes which leave a lasting impact on the audience.
Dunkirk has been described by Nolan as a pseudo-horror film, and that’s in large part due to its overwhelming tension and suspense, raised to unrelenting levels by the film’s masterful editing and its sublime sound design. Lee Smith cuts the film painstaking slowly at first, but as the desperate danger on the beaches heightens, it becomes faster and faster. Your heartbeat will follow. Try not to hold your breath.
The sound design of Dunkirk will truly take over all your senses, as cinema like this should. The sound effects of the battle scenes are everything we’ve come to expect from a film of this scope. But it’s the film’s other sound achievements that are the standout here. Much like Dario Marianelli’s brilliant use of a typewriter in Atonement, the seemingly innocent sound of a omnipresent stopwatch ticking creates the most astonishing sense of rising tension within the film. I don’t think I can ever hear a ticking watch the same ever again. Blended on top of this is Han Zimmer’s blustering and harrowing score which is so genuinely jarring at times, you will feel it in your very bones. It serves as an electrifying companion to the film’s unrelenting tension.
Dunkirk is also a visually breathtaking masterpiece, with epic and beautiful cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema. Captured on 70mm film and in IMAX, you need to see this on the biggest screen you can possibly find to properly witness this glorious piece of cinema. Filled with truly unforgettable imagery, Dunkirk is overflowing with many visual moments that will stay with you long after the credits roll. From the soaring wide shots of the open ocean during the aerial dogfights, to the intimate claustrophobia of being trapped on a sinking (and burning) ship, there is nothing to do but admire the work of a master visual craftsman.
While the performances combine to create an impressive ensemble, this is not a typical Oscar-bait film featuring the usual big, showy acting moments. The film features minimal dialogue (attention Academy – it still deserves a Screenplay nod), and avoids the need for long-winded monologues and epic speeches. Rylance is unsurprisingly the stand-out, capturing enormous emotional depth, often only with just his facial expressions. Like his work in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy delivers his performance through his eyes, and his heroism is somehow fully on show with just a look. And for those worried, Harry Styles blends into this film seamlessly, and his appearance is never detracting from the overall experience. Did you really think a director like Nolan would add a mega male popstar to one of his films if he couldn’t actually act?
Dunkirk is nothing short of a masterpiece. No, it is a masterpiece. A cinematic achievement like no other so far this year. It’s that rare time you can genuinely call a piece of cinema a work of art. Dunkirk is gripping, tense, flawlessly crafted, emotionally exhausting (as a subject like war should be), and genuinely unforgettable. One of the best war movies there has ever been. And the best film of the year so far.
And now I must put my Oscar prognosticator hat on. There’s still a mighty long way to go, but Dunkirk must immediately become the frontrunner for the Academy Awards in March, particularly for Christopher Nolan’s direction, Lee Smith’s editing and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography. You can essentially give it the trophies now for its sound achievements which will be impossible to top. How anything can attempt to match it in the Best Picture race will be interesting to see, but a July frontrunner holding steady all the way to Oscar night seems near impossible these days. Then again, stranger things have happened. Game on.