Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster / art film hybrid is the director working at maximum efficiency and effect. Mixing experimental sensibilities with thrilling, mainstream filmmaking, Dunkirk is a unique and exciting work that doesn’t ever let up for its unexpectedly brief running time. Told in an elegantly constructed triptych of stories unfolding on land, air and sea at different times that later converge, Dunkirk plays with time and perspective to often terrifying effect – after all, this is a war film in which we never really see the enemy soldiers.
For most of the film the German army appears as a faceless and ethereal entity, nothing to identify them other than incoming bombs and bullets which land with deafening and startling noise. Mostly shot on gargantuan IMAX cameras and 65mm film, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema combines the large scale format with tense close ups and narrow focus to amplify the air of intense claustrophobia – one shot earlier in the film focuses on a young soldier as he lies on the sand, head down as bombs drop closer and closer on the beach at Dunkirk.
Not to say that this represents all of the cinematography however – Nolan’s obsession with drowning leads us to a lot of haunting images of water, and occasionally views over a strangely serene English Channel. The film is astonishing to look at – even more so in 70mm (hate to break it to you, but by Nolan’s design the best way to see the film is in IMAX).
Combined with a tricky timeline and an abstract, jagged soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk recreates the disorientation and fear inherent in war – ever present danger highlighted by a near constant ticking noise that often (synonym) chills the blood. – Zimmer’s score contains sounds familiar to those who have watched any other collaboration between him and Nolan, but this is Zimmer at his most experimental.
The soundtrack is noisy, disconcerting and completely stress inducing – and carries a lot of importance in maintaining the tension of the narrative. The film almost has a silent era sensibility in this sense, as there’s not much in the way of dialogue and most of the storytelling is done through the filmmaking. Long stretches of the film will feature action without dialogue, as soldiers flee from one disaster to the next, the very elements of the earth seeming to work against them. The action itself is relentless, with each narrow escape seeming to only buy a small amount time – as we’re reminded by the constant ticking of the soundtrack.
We’re introduced to each set of (mostly nameless) characters with minimal exposition, discovering what kind of people they are mostly though their actions. While the film’s very nature could mean that the performances could feel somewhat secondary, there’s not a single weak link in the film’s ensemble cast. Fionn Whitehead and even Harry Styles do a great job as young soldiers frantically trying to escape the beach by any means. Tom Hardy mostly acts with his eyes – but it works anyway. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh have slightly more to sink their teeth into, bringing sentiment to the proceedings without feeling cloying, and while the film certainly manages tension with a more sure hand than it does emotion, it never feels overly sweet – even in triumph.
The film is ultimately about a military failure, and doesn’t lose sight of that, even in its final moments. Dunkirk itself however, feels like a victory for film – the format – and the perfect film to represent the general works of Christopher Nolan; a monumental accomplishment of film making that combining his obsession with time, water and narrative tricks and seemingly responding to criticism (with its humble running time and lack of expository dialogue) to make a film of astonishing scale, elegance, and constant thrills.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Scr: Christopher Nolan
Prd: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Country: UK, USA
Dunkirk is out in cinemas Friday 21st July.