Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an unrelenting, fast-paced affair that never lets up from start to finish. The Spitfire aerial battle scenes alone leave you mentally exhausted and out of breath, and with IMAX cameras strapped to the planes’ wings, Dunkirk showcases angles that I have never ever seen before in a film. Without any preliminaries, Nolan plunges us straight into the middle of Dunkirk, the coastal French town where hundreds of thousands of British and allied soldiers were stranded, surrounded by the German army. The flower of the British army faced annihilation, and Nolan’s film depicts the evacuation of those troops from the beaches around Dunkirk.
As in most of his films, Christopher Nolan injects his usual narrative flair – here (in an echo of Churchill’s famous speech) tackling the story from three different angles: Land (a group of soldiers on the beach), Sea (one of the civilian boats sailing over the English Channel to rescue soldiers) and Air (three spitfires engaging in aerial battle to protect both the beach and the boats in the Channel).
What makes it unique or particularly “Nolan-esque” is that while the three narratives cross cut between each other throughout the film, they are all for the most part, happening at different times. The land narrative lasts about a week, the sea about a day and the scenes in the air follow a one-hour timeline - only to converge near the end for a heart-pounding climax.
What is unique about Dunkirk? Historically Christopher Nolan has made very dialogue-heavy films that carry a lot of exposition, whereas Dunkirk has very little dialogue. This, along with stripped down character development enables the characters of the film to be used mostly as pieces of the larger story where the incredibly-haunting visuals and music are the main characters.
Dunkirk is very different from most other famous “war” films. This movie has no stirring speeches from commanding officers, no love story, no letters to home. It drops the sentiment-flavoured breaks in battle and instead, like a thriller, uses time as a motif to demonstrate how everyone is racing against the clock.
It would be an injustice to discount how great the actors are here (an ensemble that includes Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy) but they are in fact the last thing you want to talk about – no showboat performances here – Tom Hardy spends most of the film under a mask (for a second time in a Nolan flick). With the lack of ”war-time Oscar moments” – all the characters seem subdued and understated – which works incredibly well to move the plot along at the pace it requires, no distractions here.
And of course, a Christopher Nolan film wouldn’t be complete without a score from the great Hans Zimmer and this is easily his best work since Man of Steel. Unlike other war films, Zimmer’s music does not swell with heightened emotion, aiming to pluck the heartstrings, instead he uses a lot of natural sound effects, like the clicking of a time piece. Whilst ear-shatteringly loud, the score feels very organic, designed to build on the action and emphasise scale rather than provoke tear-jerk emotions.
I consider Christopher Nolan to be the great filmmaker of his generation. The balance his films carry between respecting film as art, narrative playfulness and large-scale blockbuster filmmaking is unmatched and Dunkirk is yet another great example of that.
Dunkirk on IMAX is also in some ways the antithesis of the current “smaller release window” mentality. It wouldn’t pack anywhere near as much punch if it was viewed at home (I doubt even a regular-sized cinema screen would deliver the goods to full effect). It is an event picture, a tentpole in the classic sense –and one that you will want to talk about and see again straight after your first viewing.