Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Plot: Trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk with their backs to the sea, thousands of British and Allied troops face an impossible situation as the enemy closes in.
In a summer dominated by superheroes, giant robots, minions and pirates, it’s rather surprising to say that the summer’s strongest picture (and perhaps the strongest picture of the year so far) is Dunkirk.
Based on the real events from 1940, Dunkirk is a beast of a film; showcasing not just the heroic evacuation, but the terrifying horrors of the war itself. Splitting itself into three chapters told non-linearly, Dunkirk focuses on three parts of the famous evacuation; The Mole focusing on the land, The Sea focusing on the boats coming to help and The Air focusing on the RAF with each chapter following a different group of characters. This is an excellent approach, as it allows the film to cover the widest range of the story it’s telling with three very different groups of characters; a small group of British soldiers desperately trying to survive, a Mariner, his son and his son’s friend sailing a small boat to aid in the evacuation and two RAF pilots desperately trying to hold off the German bombers to give the evacuation time. For this reason, no character really emerges as the main character of the film. This is truly an ensemble piece.
Perhaps the easiest way to describe Dunkirk is that it’s three interconnecting short films presented non-linearly. Those expecting a more conventional narrative may be disappointed.
Time plays a very big role within the film itself, from the ticking clock that is ever present within the film’s soundtrack, signifying how little time there is to evacuate, to Farrier (Hardy) using time to estimate how much fuel he has left in his plane after his fuel gauge is damaged all the way to the film telling us how much time each chapter covers (The Mole covering a week, The Sea covering a day and The Air covering an hour). This in turn creates a massive sense of urgency within the film; relentless pacing really makes the audience uneasy and anxious at all times, with moments that should feel safe instead leaving us fearing the next inevitable strike by the Germans.
By far the strongest of the film’s three chapters however is The Sea; which very easily could have been its own film. The Sea is carried by strong performances by Mark Rylance as a Mariner trying to aid the evacuation and Cillian Murphy as a rescued shell-shocked soldier desperate not to go back to Dunkirk, at any cost. The Sea is a fantastic piece of filmmaking in its own right and will likely go on to be one of the most memorable parts of the film for most audiences.
The Mole meanwhile is relentless in its showcasing of the horrors of war. Following three soldiers; Tommy (Whitehead), Alex (Styles) and the mute Gibson (Barnard) desperately trying to find a way out of Dunkirk and back to England as soon as possible, The Mole almost feels like a horror movie at times. The German forces, ever present, are never actually seen instead only identified as sudden gunshots and flying bombers. This makes the Germans feel like an almost supernatural force, constantly hunting the trio. The Mole is bolstered by some of the film’s most tense sequences and some wonderful performances from young actors Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard. Barnard in particular impresses due to having no lines of dialogue. Styles also impresses with a strong performance, perhaps indicating he could have a big career outside the music industry. Whitehead is also great and manages to carry The Mole very well as a very easy to root for protagonist.
The Air is home to most of the film’s action sequences, namely highflying (and lowflying) dogfights above the beaches of Dunkirk. Mostly carried by two actors; Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, this story is the shortest of the three but is home to some of the more memorable moments. The dogfights have to be seen to be believed and are utterly thrilling to watch. If you can, definitely seek out a large format screen to watch the movie in, either IMAX or Dolby Cinema, as these sequences are worth watching on the biggest screen possible. Hardy and Lowden do excellently enough and Hardy in particular stands out very well, delivering a great performance despite nearly all of his scenes being confined to a small cockpit.
One of the more surprising things about Dunkirk is how it doesn’t glorify the events taking place. Unlike other war movies which are often more sentimental and patriotic, Dunkirk never shies away from just how horrifying the events were. For there is no denying the events at Dunkirk were a disaster. And that is perhaps a more fitting genre for the movie. It’s not a war movie. It’s a disaster movie that just happens to focus on a disaster that occurred during wartime. While this does not mean the movie doesn’t have its patriotic moments, which it does, the movie just chooses to focus more on the horror, disaster and tragedy of Dunkirk than anything else. Which works just right for the movie.
On a technical level, Dunkirk is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Nolan has gone on record saying that the film used as little CGI as possible and it shows. This is a grand scale production the likes of which is rarely seen today. The film is awe inspiring to see and helped along by actually filming at the locations where the events happened. The cinematography, costumes, props, everything looks so real and raw that it’s almost difficult to tell yourself “It’s just a movie” at times. Helped along by Nolan choosing to film on 70mm film and IMAX cameras, as well as a Dolby Vision pass (which sadly can currently only be seen in select cinemas capable of displaying it until the film’s 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray release) all of which makes Dunkirk a visual feast for the eyes.
Dunkirk’s sound mix is also fantastic. Despite Director Christopher Nolan showing an aversion to sound mixes higher than 5.1 (meaning Dunkirk has no 7.1 or Dolby Atmos mix as is typical for most movies nowadays), Dunkirk still sounds amazing. Bullets suddenly spring out of nowhere, bombers and spitfires fly overhead, explosions are heard all around. There’s no doubt about it, this is Nolan’s best sounding movie.
There are many words I could use to describe Dunkirk, but I think only one encapsulates everything I could say about the film; masterpiece. Dunkirk is a feat of filmmaking and easily one of Christopher Nolan’s best films, perhaps even better than The Dark Knight. Nolan has proven himself a master of filmmaking once again and one of the best living directors working today. Dunkirk is a relentless, raw, horrific and pulse-racing experience; one that will thrill, shock and grip audiences worldwide. Dunkirk is not just the greatest film of the summer, but the greatest film of 2017 so far – and it is unlikely to be topped.