Considering the amount of hype around this film, whether that be through extensive advertising, the excitement of a new Christopher Nolan project, or the anticipation for Harry Styles’ first acting credit, I was surprised to be greeted with a commemorative t-shirt on entry to the cinema, declaring that I’d been to watch it. It’s the sort of thing you might be paid to wear, not given once you’ve already bought a ticket. And yet, after not even two hours of some soldiers getting on and off boats, I’m very tempted to make it a wardrobe staple.
Detailing the seemingly fictional events of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II, the film follows the embarrassing military fiasco on the continent, which left over 400,000 British and French soldiers surrounded by the enemy on a beach in Northern France. With larger naval ships unable to dock in the shallow waters, and German bombers and U-boats slowly picking them off, it was down to a flotilla of civilian fishing boats to save the armies.
Of course, this being a Nolan film, it would be too simple to keep the storyline linear; instead he chooses three interconnecting stories, each with an individually paced timeline, jumping from beach to fishing boat to spitfire with sometimes dizzying speed. The plot, if it can be called that, seems confusing before you realise that chronology has been altered, but once you do one uniting theme becomes evident: survival. The result is nothing short of a spectacle, with action Michael Bay would be proud of, but that feels uncomfortably real, nearly all shot in 70mm IMAX film. The characters themselves play a supporting role to the vast spectacle of disaster and despair they are subjected to, most remaining unnamed soldiers throughout. This is fitting given that the real antagonist is not the Germans per se but what their ever-looming threat represents – it’s not so much good against evil, as the struggle for survival against death.
If ever there was an example of why practical effects – special effects produced physically during filming, not in post production – are superior in all regards, this is it. You can only sit wide-eyed as a destroyer sinks in under a minute, extras pouring off it like water, while a spitfire chases the bomber responsible 30 metres above them. This is likely why the performances given seem real, as almost every bullet and explosion seen by the viewers was experienced by the actors. You’d expect something impressive when a studio provides $150 million in funding, but that doesn’t make the result any less staggering.
If you expect to walk out feeling an overwhelming nationalistic pride for Britain you probably don’t know what happened at Dunkirk, and thankfully this sombre tone remains even when (not-really-a-spoiler alert!) those lucky enough to escape return to cheering children at the train station and the ironic praise of “well done”. Indeed, the entire film echoes with the realisation that these men will never be the same again, none more so than Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked character only credited as ‘shivering soldier’.
In the hands of a less experienced director this could easily have become quite repetitive, as seemingly every attempt to escape the beach becomes a claustrophobic fight to avoid shrapnel or drowning. But where Dunkirk succeeds is by never actually letting up on the tension, making it one continuous struggle that keeps drawing you in. Particular thanks must be given to Hans Zimmer, teaming up with Nolan once again to provide a soundtrack that keeps the pace frantic but suspenseful, and perfectly suits the big-screen IMAX format this movie was intended for.
Is it Nolan’s best film to date? Quite possibly. It’s not his typical summer blockbuster, with little to no dialogue, and none of the sleek modernism that has come to define his body of work. But this is definitely not one for illegally streaming on your laptop if you want to appreciate the sheer force of the visual feast. On the contrary, if you do get to experience it in full 70mm film you will be seeing one of the greatest war movies ever made.