It’s been a while since I went into a film with expectations this sky-high. It isn’t just that it’s a film about Dunkirk, that pivotal moment in the western democracies’ World War II experience. It isn’t just that it’s Christopher Nolan, easily one of my favourite directors ever, who has been wowing me for years between Batmen and dream heists. It isn’t just that it’s Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, all actors I have great respect and admiration for.
It’s that, for the first time in a while, it’s a film whose unanamious praise from the critical community, without any disqualifying addenedums, makes it out to be literally one of the greatest films ever made. I went into Dunkirk a week or so after this critical dogpile of postivity, and was geneinely worried that it would be an overhyped experience. But I still couldn’t help myself. This moment in history, this director, this cast, and all in the IFI provided 70mm format. Is Dunkirk every bit the epic it portends to be?
France 1940: After the military disaster that has seen the German Army over-run huge swaths of France, the British Expeditionary Force finds itself trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, awaiting a deliverance that seems unlikely to come. The story unfolds from three perspectives: On the beach, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) endure the Stuka dive bomb attacks and sinking ships; in the air, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) protects the vessels evacuating troops, with an ever-decreasing amount of fuel; at sea, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his small yacht across the English Channel to save whomever he can. With the Germans closing in on all sides, survival is victory.
I said it’s been a while since I went into a film with such high expectations. And it’s been a while since they have been overwhelmingly met, in this fashion. On just about every single level, Dunkirk is a masterful triumph, any review of which is in danger of being a mere cavalcade of superlatives.
Right from the start, with a limited narrative crawl – that only refers to the Germans as “the enemy”, something the rest of the film, focused overwhelmingly on the British, follows on with – and then a short, sharp brutish firefight in the streets of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan drops you into the experience of being a lowly British soldier, lost among the crowd of other soldiers amassed on Dunkirk beach, waiting for a rescue with dwindling hope. The silent lines of soldiery let the waves wash over them, non-caring. Corpses are shamelessly looted. Some men, maddened by the limbo they are lost in, drop their guns and helmets to try and swim their way home.
And then the first bombing run from a Stuka comes, and that’s the moment you’ll realise you’re not watching just any old recreation of a famous wartime event. You’re watching nothing less than a supreme effort to recreate the sounds and sights of wartime for a modern-day audience, right down to the dragon-like roar of the German planes as they swoop over the helpless British soldiers. Nolan wants you there, and you will be there, cowering in the theatre from this rush of noise, the crescendo of dropped bombs edging ever closer, the sound and fury of battle exemplified in a way that no other film, not even Saving Private Ryan, has been able to do.
From there, a loose non-linear narrative kicks in, split between the beach, the sky and the land. The nature of the narrative can be a tad confusing at moments, at least up to the halfway point, but once you settle in and things start matching up, it’s no longer such a big deal, a flaw that barely merits discussion. Nolan wants you upfront for every aspect of what made Dunkirk famous, and this is how he does it. The editing is a wonder, with 106-minute running time somewhat astonishing in a day and age where every other blockbuster is breaching the two hour mark.
Much has been said already about how Dunkirk’s character are generally wanting in the characterisation department, and that’s quite true. I’m not even sure if Tommy is ever even named in the course of the film for example, and the amount of dialogue he shares with other characters could be written on a single page. Farrier never says anything other than RAF-speak in the cockpit, and even Rylance’s Dawson, who gets more lines than most other characters put together, is underwritten. What’s masterful is how this doesn’t matter at all, because Dunkirk is not a character study or wartime drama, it’s just wartime: all we need to know is the initial goal of these characters, and all we need after that is for us to want them to get home alive. In every desperate glance, be it at an oncoming torpedo, a Messerschmitt in the rearview mirror, or a crazed soldier threatening to sink your boat, Dunkirk gives us that.
And while the film can’t claim to have any fully three-dimensional characters, in many ways you can argue that the film only has one character, that of the British military itself, be it Army, Navy, Air Force, or its veterans. Seen through such a lens, Dunkirk is a brilliant character study of a single entity (I mean the primary character is named “Tommy” for one) on the brink of disaster, showcasing heroism, cowardice, ingenuity, recklessness, loyalty, suspicion, strength and weakness, all in equal measures, all serving to craft a portrait of a military and a nation at large, reacting to the very real and seemingly imminent possibility of their own destruction.
As a tribute to the “Blitz spirit”, that can be said to have begun with the evacuation of Dunkirk, the film is an admirable, and only on occasion saccharine, tribute to the commitment and bravery of the British people (it’s the year for it, with Their Finest being another great look at the period from a very different direction, and the upcoming Darkest Hour potentially also making it onto that list, an “Operation Dynamo” trilogy as it were).
The different strands of the trifecta still allow for separate moments of high drama and tension. The Mole, in some ways the main event, is where we witness the crux of the survival story, as Tommy, Gibson and later Alex (Harry Styles, though barely recognisable) attempt over and over again to get off the beach and get home, by increasingly desperate and eventually near-murderous means. It’s a look at a defeated army coming apart at the seams and the tension is driven by individual reactions as much as the actual dropping of bombs and torpedoes. It’s the equal or better of many other survival stories, driven by remarkably under-stated performances from Whitehead, Barnard and Styles, who grab a hold of your heart with their desperate plight, that simple desire for the nightmare to just be over.
The sequences focusing on the common soldiers are balanced out by Kenneth Branagh’s Commander on the Mole itself, and his interjections with James D’Arcy’s Army Colonel. These serve admirably as tense but needed breaks from the direct life and death peril, and to fill you in on what scant bits of exposition Nolan is willing to ladle out. They also allow for brief but necessary acknowledgements for how the French held the line around Dunkirk long enough for the British to escape, without getting near the same kind of courtesy from their Allies. Branagh, as he seems to do so effortlessly at times, imbues “Bolton” with a quiet dignity and heroism even as things fall apart around him, the epitome of British military “stiff upper lip”, but D’Arcy too should be praised as a competent but panicky soldier facing the loss of his entire army.
In the air, it’s the Tom Hardy show, almost the entirety of his scenes inside the narrow cockpit of Spitfire Supermarine, one of the few the RAF deigns to release to defend the skies above and near the beach. Here, the cinematography and music are at their finest to drive things forward, notwithstanding the goosebumps Hardy can give you with just a look in his eyes or a glance at the fuel gauge. Never have I seen aerial dogfighting produced in so engaging a fashion, as to really put you into the seat of a pilot whose every shot could be the last he squeezes off. As his fuel reserves decrease, and the situation remains perilous, you’re swept up in the dilemma Hardy’s Farrier faces, to turn back for home and leave the soldiers and sailors to the mercy of the Luftwaffe, or keep going, knowing that, eventually, your engine is going to stop turning.
And then there is the sea, the dramatisation of the “Little Boats”, in this case the Moonstone of Mr Dawson and his son, with local boy George (Ireland’s own Barry Keoghan, who can hopefully shed the unwelcome moniker he garnered from Love/Hate) jumping onboard out of a desire to prove himself a hero. It’s here that Dunkirk moves its closest to the kind of stereotypical war film-making that so defines the genre: unexpected heroism, loss of idealism and innocence, crazed “shell-shocked” soldiers. But the twists and turns, not to mention how it all interacts with everything else, combine to make the Moonstone’s voyage as gripping and eventful as anything else in Dunkirk, helped ably by Cillian Murphy as the aforementioned soldier who would rather not be heading back to France.
In its three and a bit narratives, Dunkirk is not really interested in glorifying the military, not really. In the case of the soldiers, there’s plenty of dishonourable dealings and running away to be spotted. But in terms of portraying this race for survival, and how survival itself is “enough”, as one lately introduced character espouses, Nolan showcases the kind of humanity and character that other films can only dream of doing. The men of Dunkirk are just ordinary people trying to stay alive, and sometimes making difficult choices. That’s why your brain and your heart will latch themselves onto their chances of survival, and why you’ll wince and tremor at every gunshot, bomb splash and roaring Stuka siren. The film does ask, pointedly, if men like those depicted are heroes for what they have done, and if the British public’s adulation of the survivors is justified. No answers are given to the question, just the comparisons with other kinds of bravery being shown in other parts of the film.
Nolan’s visual direction, with Hoyte van Hoytema in the cinematographers chair, is easily one of the greatest examples of the art ever put to film. We’ve seen scope for action in the Dark Knight trilogy, the mind-bending in Inception, the cosmic in Interstellar, but never has Nolan put forth his powers like this, demonstrating his mastery of the wide and the small, the expansive and the intimate. On this journey, he shows us the waves of humanity on the beach from on high, and the grimy sweat and oil-soaked faces below, kited out and made-up to perfection by a production department working their socks off. We see the great wide open of the sky, and the stuffy, claustrophobic environment of the Spitfire cockpit. We see the swallowing enormity of the sea, eating up downed planes and sinking ships alike, and we see the cramped, overcrowded cabins of pleasure yachts groaning with rescued soldiers.
I was lucky in that a 70mm option was available to me through the IFI cinema, and I’m delighted for that chance, as the film leaps off the screen wonderfully in the classic format. There’s so much to talk about on a visual level, that it’s hard to know where to stop. That first gasping run onto the beach perhaps, or the way that Nolan’s framing of the dogfights draws your eye all over the screen as if you are the pilot yourself. Maybe the grappling horror of a sinking destroyer’s interior and the men and women trapped inside, or the packed line of men on the Mole dipping down in a wave as the Stuka’s approach. Maybe the Little Boats emerging out of the fog in a moment of pure catharsis or the trudging soldiers in the railyard, moving towards an uncertain future.
What “action” that there is, is far from the traditional gunplay. “The enemy” is only seen in the form of Messerschmitt’s, Stukas and Heinkel’s, never as men, their gunshots and artillery strikes coming from off-screen, usually as the principals cower or flee. Instead, the film is driven by our look at reactions and Nolan’s own form of kinetic, frantic cinematography, where the madness of explosions, blood and roaring water fill your head with terror-struck confusion and fear. This is Christopher Nolan, at the height of his directorial ability, demonstrating more than he ever has before his pre-eminence in the craft.
But all of the glorious cinematography would go to waste if it didn’t have the sound design and score to go with it, but boy does Dunkirk have it. It’s rare on this site that I talk about sound outside of score, but I simply have to here: every bang from a gun, every crash of a wave, every deafening, heart-stopping roar of a plane engine is designed and executed to absolute perfection in this film. The sounds of war have been replicated and instituted in such a manner that you could close your eyes and still get something very important out of Dunkirk.
Then step forward Hanz Zimmer, with what might be his most ambitious and inventive score since, well, Inception. No settling for the traditional booming horns and sweeping violins of the war genre, instead we get something altogether unique, almost futuristic, utilising electronic influences at every turn, every moment of music designed to hypnotise the ear and inspire dread, fear, relief and then dread again. It’s a masterful intermeshing of score and visuals, exemplified best by the ticking clock motif that rallies again and again throughout Dunkirk, driving your heartbeat up and your emotions to a frenzy, a sound that will likely reverberate in your ears days after the screening. It drives the central tension of the film so well, the idea that time is quite literally running out for men in Dunkirk or the pilots in the air or the sailors on the pleasure yachts. The enemy is closing the ring all the time, the U-Boats prowl under the waves, there’s always another Messerschmitt or Stuka or Heinkel, and Hanz Zimmer is committed to the idea that the audience should never be allowed to forget this encroaching reality, not for a moment.
Taken together – plot, performances, visuals, sound, score – and Dunkirk really is more of an experience than a film. I have never been in a firefight, or a battle, or a sinking ship, and I hope I never am, but if film is ever going to create something that I would imagine as a close representation of such an event, then Dunkirk would be it. Every production element merges with the others to create a whole that is simply wondrous.
Moving towards a conclusion, I must make three solid declarations:
This is the greatest war film I have ever seen. Direct comparisons to the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Krigen or Der Untergang would be unfair, as they use more traditional narratives and structures, but in terms of depicting warfare and the men and women who endure it, nothing matches Dunkirk.
This is the film of the year. The idea that anything coming out for the next five or so months can best it is heresy. Dunkirk cannot be compared to the MCU’s and the Star Wars and Oscar baits of this world. It’s on a different level entirely. It’s a true epic, in every sense of the term. That contest is over.
This is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. Everything about it is masterful. Everything. It grabbed a hold of me almost immediately and didn’t let go until that infernal ticking stopped. At different points, it made me gasp, shrink and almost cheer. It elated and deflated. It made me teary-eyed, and it made my heart race. Only a handful of films can ever claim to have had such an effect on me.
What else is there to say? Go and see this film. Even if war films aren’t your cup of tea, even if you prefer your film experiences to be more relaxing. Something about Dunkirk will be lost in the transition to the small-screen – not enough to ruin it, not even close, but enough that it will be noticeable – and you will regret not taking a hold of the opportunity to see one of eras greatest cinema offerings the way that the mastermind behind it wants you to see it. Everything about it is near perfection. Highly, highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).