TL;DR – Beautiful and haunting, spectacular yet emotional, a must see film.
Score – 5 out of 5 stars
Wow, just wow, I had high expectations walking in to see Dunkirk because I have always enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s films, to this day I think Inception would fit squarely in my Top 10 films of all time. Indeed, even when I don’t like a particular Nolan film like Interstellar, they are still technically brilliant. But nothing prepared me for Dunkirk, and now I know I am writing this after just seeing it, and that in time things might change, but as I sit here, I can’t help but feel that this is Nolan’s best film to date.
So to set the scene, and to give you a little historical background because all of this happened well over seventy-five years ago. At the start of WW2 the French had built a very strong defensive line along the border with Germany, the Maginot Line, so of course, Germany went around it through Belgium. While this had been expected by the allies, no one expected the enemy to come through the Ardennes forest splitting the French and British forces. This blitzkrieg leads to the fall of France and one of the largest military retreats in history. As the movie starts British and French forces had been pushed back to Dunkirk in northern France, surrounded on all sides, the only way out was by sea, but how do you get 400,000 troops out when the enemy is closing in? So why is Dunkirk important, because out of a military defeat, a sense of national pride was born with how Britain responded to the crisis, well the British people that is, when the Navy couldn’t get them all out, civilian boats all across the British coast took to the seas to help out. Now going forward we are going to hit [SPOILERS] very quickly for reasons that should be clear if you have seen the film, also this is based off a historical event, so you probably already know what is going to happen before you even see this film. But for those wanting a spoiler free hot take, the action is intense, the cinematography is impeccable, and I highly recommend it. So a final [SPOILER] warning as we get into the review proper.
Let’s start with the story, because this is where you will either be hooked or possibly confused. This is because, while there is one central narrative in Dunkirk, it is not shown in a linear progression. This is something that you’ll either find engaging or off putting depending on how you like time jumps in your movies especially when they are not made clear, but I found it to be really compelling. This technique allows us to get to know these people throughout the whole film, giving each of their actions impact. The main story follows Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) one of the last British soldiers to make it to Dunkirk, indeed his whole unit was gunned down in the streets as they tried to make it to the beach. As he arrives, you see the sheer enormity of what needs to happen to get these people off the beach, and the sudden realisation that it probably won’t happen. There is this palpable tension of being so close to home, but knowing that you probably won’t be able to get there. It is at this moment of revelation that the enemy starts to bomb the beach attacking those patiently queueing up to leave and you understand something that is confirmed a few minutes later by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) that of the 400,000 troops on the beach Churchill hoped they would be able to save 35,000 of them to help defend Britain, 45,000 of them if they were lucky and only the British soldiers, even though the French troops are guarding the beach from the enemy. Dunkirk is a story about survival against all the odds, survival when military bureaucracy has failed you, survival in the face of an enemy that bombs hospital ships, survival in the face of everyone else wanting just as much as you to get off that beach.
Dunkirk is full of these human moments, where you see the best and worst of people and you completely understand why they act the way that they do, and all of these moments work because the actors are giving performances of a lifetime. The power of a look, you can have a whole conversation without words, it is this kind of acting that gives a movie weight makes it more than just about expositional expediency, it is about engaging on an emotional level. Indeed, there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the film and that is important because you focus on the faces and body language, which tells you everything. A good example of this is Mark Rylance who plays Mr Dawson one of the civilian boat owners that risked their lives to help rescue the soldiers when the Navy couldn’t. Now I have said this before back in my reviews of The BFG (review) and Bridge of Spies (review) Mark Rylance is a phenomenal actor, but here he gives a performance that tops even those highs. He provides the strength in the face of all the odds, the calm before the storm, to put it in perspective I am getting emotional just writing about it, I will be shocked and surprised if he does not earn an Oscar nomination. Since you follow Tommy throughout the film, it was so important that he is someone you can relate to, and you feel for his plight, each time he gets to a point of safety everything falls apart, and it hurts to watch. There was a lot of talk about Harry Styles who plays Alex, another Army private, being stunt casting before the film premiered. Now, this is Christopher Nolan, and that’s not what he does, he cast Heath Ledger much to the howls of the internet because he was the best person for the job, and there’s no difference here. He showed himself to be a very capable actor, and hey, if a lot of young people come and see this film and learn about their history and what war is like, then all the more for it. Look this is a film with a cast list that has James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy and each of them gives amazing performances. However, it is also full of people who haven’t been in a lot of films yet Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden and Brian Vernel, and I can tell you there is no difference in their performance, it is a wonder to watch.
You get this level of performance through excellence at every level of production and you can see that on show at all times with Dunkirk. Now Christopher Nolan is known for filming things practically where ever possible, even in films where there are a lot of visual effects, for example, let’s stick that hallway in a giant centrifuge. Dunkirk is no exception, the ships have texture to them, they feel real, and I believe a number of them were actually used in the original evacuation. To pull off a lot of the effects in-camera Christopher Nolan had to use a lot of techniques filmmakers used back in the days before visual effects were available which is interesting because the other Dunkirk film we got this year Their Finest (review) actually shows some of these techniques in their film-within-a-film. This focus on the practical is supported by some amazing framing, Hoyte van Hoytema who worked on the cinematography with Nolan has an incredible eye for detail and using light and darkness to rank up the tension of a battle. Now all the practical effects in the world won’t help you if your film is a slog to get through, but this another area where the film excels. Using the nonlinear time frame, it allows you to be constantly pushing forward creating tension that never lets up, in many ways, it is similar to Mad Max Fury Road (review) giving you little moments of pause to let you catch your breath before taking off again. A lot of that comes from the excellent editing by Lee Smith who has an audio background and that shows here.
One area that I want to give a special mention to is the audio department on Dunkirk, the sound mixing, sound effects, foley, and musical scores adds so much to this film. The soundscape in Dunkirk was amazing, the whine of the plane engines, and how you can hear the difference between the British and the enemy fighters, each bullet cracks, each explosion thuds, you feel it in your body. Another highlight is the score by Hans Zimmer which is much more reserved than a lot of his other films. There is a strong use of violins to help build that tension, along with a metaphorical and literal ticking clock that constantly pulses through you. Indeed, even silence is used for its greatest effect here, because silence is not a reprieve, it is a harbinger of something bad coming, and as you sit there you start to hear the whine of a Messerschmitt incoming at the same time as those on the beach. It is a good reminder of the power of sound as a way of telling a story.
In the end, Dunkirk is a film about what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be a villain, and how when you are trying to survive sometimes that line blurs. It is a movie about in the face of defeat a people mobilised to get their boys home, it is a movie about what would you sacrifice to lend a helping hand. Finally, in an age of uncertainty, it is a good reminder of what happened when we let everything fall apart. I highly recommend Dunkirk, and I think at this point it is our favourite film of the year so far.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Trailer – Click Here to View (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Dunkirk
Directed by – Christopher Nolan
Written by – Christopher Nolan
Based on – Operation Dynamo the real life evacuation of Dunkirk during WW2
Music by – Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by – Hoyte van Hoytema
Edited by – Lee Smith
Starring – Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Brian Vernel, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy & Mark Rylance
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13