Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, and Tom Glynn-Carney.
Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
Of the many, many remarkable things about Christopher Nolan’s jaw-dropping Dunkirk is its run time. At just 104 minutes, it’s Nolan’s shortest since his debut Following, yet, it feels as if far denser. Time frames intertwine, moving through one another in a manner that bewilders and bewitches. As if a personal joke, a ticking clock can be heard throughout, through the score, through every hellish set piece, a literal and metaphorical countdown that, when it finally comes to a close, leaves a deafening silence that hits like a freight train.
In fact, all previous press-the runtime, the 12 certification, the seemingly provocative casting of boy band heartthrob Harry Styles-now seem entirely futile. Every decision, be it micro or larger, plays out with such immaculate precision. The rating, thus abandoning all possible gore, is a godsend to Nolan, who placates any Saving Private Ryan-esque violence for a sustained tension far, far more harrowing.
Nolan tells the horrors of war through three intertwining tales: land, air and sea. The first finds Fionn Whitehead escaping a sudden ambush to find himself on the beaches of Dunkirk, a duck amidst hundreds of thousands more lead by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). A lame attempt to escape leaves him in the company of further young soldiers, of which includes Harry Styles “alpha” Alex.
Air, the most streamlined of the three and the most cinematic, finds fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy, almost mute) and Collins (Jack Lowden) valiantly protecting the soldiers trying so hard to escape.
Whilst on sea and on their way to Dunkirk, civilians Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan) rescue Cillian Murphy, an unnamed soldier stranded atop a sunken U-boat.
Structurally, the film twists and turns, time-although only ever-moving forward-never feels truly linear, each story overlapping creating a dizzying, woozy like state with which to heighten the horrors the characters suffer. Moments of respite are few and far between and this narrative structure, a nightmarish mille-feuille of interconnected set-pieces, only places further emphasis on the silence with which the audience are finally greeted to following the shattering, exhausting finale.
There’s a smart anonymity to the characters (not to downplay the performances, all of which are universally impressive). We are given little time to know each of them as if thrown headfirst into war ourselves. Characters, for the most part, stay unnamed, their paths crossing for brief moments.
The action is also stunning and of such vivid nightmares. Whilst on land, bodies are thrown and muddied by anonymous German fighter pilots dropping bombs from above whilst on sea; the action becomes far more claustrophobic. Tights shots of soldiers huddled on the deck of boats awaiting a torpedo or drowning amidst hundreds of others are horribly nail bitingly tense.
But Nolan saves the best for the air, utilizing the IMAX cameras and 70mm film like no other filmmaker. Vast vistas are broken up by screaming bullets and dipping fighter jets, and on an IMAX screen, it’s a frankly overpowering experience. To see it on a screen smaller would be of disservice to Nolan and his film.
For all the noise of Dunkirk, it’s a film that relies on silence, be it of hushed commanders or the forced silence of those awaiting their fate. Over his illustrious career, Nolan has crafted blockbusters intelligent, but never this sparse, yet Dunkirk may be his finest.
It’s a shattering, exhausting, experience; a study of the futility and hopelessness of war that shocks and awes in equal measure. It’s a jaw dropping, singular achievement.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★