It’s May 1940 and things are not looking great for the Allied forces. Soldiers from France, Belgium and Britain are surrounded by pressing German forces and things are getting rather desperate. Home is so tantalisingly close that they can see it but the route is all but blocked, it seems like only a miracle can avert a total disaster. High tension historical drama ensues.
I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, I have enjoyed all of his films and I would class The Prestige as one of my favourite films of all time. Not to mention the fact that his Batman trilogy is among my favourite superhero franchises to date, yes even the slight misstep that was The Dark Knight Rises. It’s no surprise then that I was really keen to see how he would handle an epic historical drama like this, even if it does star Harry Styles.
I think it’s really important to start off by saying that it’s essential to see this film on the biggest screen that you can. I was lucky enough to see it at an IMAX screen and it was phenomenal. This is perhaps the definition of a cinematic experience. I haven’t been able to decide yet how well this will translate to the smaller screen for the home release but as a cinematic experience goes it’s pretty much unrivalled. I think the closest thing I can think of is when i saw Gravity and all of a sudden 3D movies made sense.
The premise is simple enough, World War II has been raging for just under a year and things haven’t been going well for the Allies. This culminates with around 300,000 British troops driven back to a beach in northern France, trying to find their way back home. There are fewer than 40 miles between them and home but getting a rescue ship is next to impossible and the bombs behind them are getting ever closer. Like I said, it’s a really simple premise but is done in such a superbly cinematic way. The story itself is divided up into three sections focusing on the troops on the ground, a small civilian rescue boat captained my Mark Rylance, and a couple of RAF pilots, including Tom Hardy (well his eyes at least, he spends most of the film with his face covered by an oxygen mask). There isn’t too much more in the way of plot or indeed character development, Kenneth Brannagh does show up as a naval Commander to launch a few exposition torpedos but that’s about it in terms of complex storytelling.
This isn’t a film that needs explanation though, it’s cinema distilled to its essential parts and in fact for large parts of the film there is very little in the way of dialogue. Dunkirk is like the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan except it doesn’t contain any of the gore but the tension is drawn out across the entire 106 minute run time. This is a visceral, unrelenting film going experience that puts you right in the middle of the action from the opening few minutes and doesn’t really let up until the credits roll. Things start out being fairly fraught and then get ratcheted up from there. This is no small part down to Hans Zimmer’s score which is an ever present throughout the film, constantly buzzing away in the background. In my screening I could actually feel the soundtrack reverberating through my whole body, it added a whole layer of tension and immersion. Sound is such a huge part of the film that the one brief moment of silence (that I can remember) really, really stood out.
Technically the film is superb, it really is an impressive feat of film making. The story is thinly sketched, but with such a perilous and consuming central it doesn’t really need much more. The characters, although largely silent and only briefly introduced do an excellent job as acting as our entry points into the story. It takes a good deal of skill both from the cast and the crew to convey so much with so little dialogue.
The one thing that didn’t entirely work for me was the way the film was edited. Rather than just use a straightforward timeline Nolan has instead gone for three interconnected stories that take place over different time spans. There’s the army on the beach, which lasts a week, Mark Rylance and his boat that take place over a day and then Tom Hardy in his plane over the course of an hour. It’s something that sounds like a clever idea but in reality it’s actually quite a confusing gimmick and it never really ties together brilliantly well especially when compared to some of the similar things Nolan has pulled off in his previous work.
I think enjoyed is a strong word for Dunkirk, but I endured it, I experienced it and most importantly I survived it. It’s an absolute cinematic marvel, that makes you realise just what can be achieved with the medium. It transcends being just a movie and is more of an experience. Whether this will translate well to BluRay/DVD and whether it will be quite as engaging on a smaller screen is another discussion entirely but it is something that should be experienced. Preferably on the biggest screen available.