Dunkirk: Film Review
Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Christopher Nolan
An apparent triptych of war stories that conclude and collide in surprising and spoilery ways, the breathtakingly intense Dunkirk is nothing without its thundering score from Hans Zimmer.
Its screeching, pulsing, pounding sonic blast powers the movie all the way and distracts from the relatively thinly drawn and relatively stereotyped characters.
Be it Tom Hardy in a mask and bomber jacket in the cockpit of a Spitfire above patrolling the skies and trying to keep others safe, or the avuncular Mark Rylance, helmsman of a fishing boat commandeered to head to Dunkirk or the desperate to get-out-of-hell squaddie played by Fionn Whitehead, the propulsion of the plot is knotted in its ticking score, which ratchets up the stress levels and tension to near unbearable.
Sketched out across the canvas of the evacuation of Dunkirk and blown big upon the IMAX screen, perhaps some of the heart is initially lost, ripped asunder in the tapestry of what Nolan is weaving.
But this is not what Dunkirk is setting out to do, nor is it what Nolan clearly has envisioned from his take on the conflict.
In among the smaller moments and the muddied, desperate faces of nameless soldiers seeking evacuation and cowering in fear as Stukas and their death-dealing payloads edge ever closer, there are times when Dunkirk's delivery of spectacle and its one smart trick excel, hitting you emotionally where you feel you should have been guarded.
It begins and unfolds over a moment in 1940 with a soldier running through the French streets in a troop, desperately scrabbling to avoid bullets and get to the evacuation, and ends with Churchill's words echoing in your ears. But in between that, Nolan's Dunkirk is a sickeningly gripping film that reworks its timelines in ways that make you feel like you're in an enclosed room with the walls closing in against you, struggling for fear of where your next breath will come from, and wishing desperately that Nolan would loosen the vice-like grip you've found yourself in against the odds.
Pressure and tension are tangible throughout, with no direct heroes coming to the fore and just the apparently disparate actions of various men fuelling the fire that burns up this dramatic pot. Less a story, more a thunderingly visceral experience that evolves from what appears to simply be a plume of smoke in the sky in the distance, Dunkirk drops you in the centre of proceedings of one day at various points in it - from its very beginning the scope of this (bloodless) battle is evident.
Troops line the beaches, desperately jostling and waiting in line to be evacuated, with the ever niggling threat of the German invasion nipping at their toes. Nolan doesn't need exposition to sell the scene (though Branagh's commander occasionally provides it) and uses the sparsity of the acting and the visceral edges to really place you there.
Dunkirk's beyond tense, and there are surprises within. Death is waiting around every corner of the conflict, and the theatre of war, and the scale of Nolan's execution really makes it evident how truly horrific it would have been.
But much like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan where the emotional end led a level of cornball to what had gone before, Nolan finds a way to offer a bittersweet resolution for enduring this cinematic tour-de-force. Granted, after stretching everything out over the previous 100 minutes, and leaving you with the heart-in-the-mouth feeling as you try to work out how the 400,000 trapped on the beaches could escape a potentially deadly fate, Nolan's denouement may be viewed as a little on the cheesy side, but given the spirit of hope which has been suppressed throughout this piece, it was perhaps inevitable.
Essentially re-inventing the war movie and somehow managing to provide an intimately gripping tale inside an epically structured landscape, Dunkirk is a piece of bravura film-making. There's no way you won't leave this film gasping for air and admiring the human spirit as well as admiring what Nolan has concocted.