Dunkirk is truly a spectacular audiovisual experience, an all out assault on the senses, unflinching in its portrayal of the pursuit of the barest tether to life against all odds. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are stranded on the French beach of Dunkirk, under assault from all directions with no escape apparent, and in order to evacuate them, a fleet of small personal vessels – pleasure boats, not meant to see military action – is sent to their rescue. It’s the type of film that could only be based on real events, because otherwise it would be almost unbelievable.
Set across three narratives, Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film (since his little-seen debut), and it’s kind of a relief that the film is so short, because any longer and Nolan might be found at fault for some heart attacks. Dunkirk is a breathless film, with rarely a moment’s pause from action.
Nolan here makes the interesting choice of avoiding showing any German soldiers. Dunkirk is certainly not the first film about World War Two with an Allied perspective (and it’s easy to draw comparisons between Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan, a natural comparison given the career arcs of Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg), but the choice to avoid depicting Germans at all, except for from afar, in planes or boats, is an adventurous one.
This may be a war film, and the genesis is certainly there (it’s hard to imagine what this would look like if the beach landing of Saving Private Ryan had never been made), but it bears a lot of similarity with a film like Cuaron’s Gravity as well. This is a survival film, a film about the tenacity of human spirit and will to live, and there’s a distinct British-ness to it. The British have built a national identity around the idea of “stiff upper lip”, around “keep calm and carry on”, and much of this identity comes from World War II, and from Winston Churchill; Dunkirk is a film that comes from that exact culture and wholly embraces that identity. This is an unmistakably patriotic film.
From top-to-bottom, Dunkirk features performances that are subtle and blend into the film thoroughly and appropriately. Many of the actors here are new faces, but clearly Christopher Nolan has a knack for identifying talent, because many of them are convincing, exciting new faces to watch. Of course, some of the appearances here are also established heavy-hitters – it’s hard to imagine actors like Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy delivering “bad” performances, and Dunkirk is no exception. Rylance is so warm and sympathetic here, and Hardy does so much with just his eyes – half his face is covered for much of the movie – that you wonder what new heights he might be able to achieve as an actor.
To elevate the tension and make a film like Dunkirk or Gravity truly effective often relies on great sound design. The sound design in Dunkirk is absolutely exhilarating, almost deafening; the distinct shrill whistles that the different aircraft make in this film are piercing and hair-raising. The collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan, frequently fruitful, continues here with a bold, ostentatious, brassy score, full of rising dissonance, a score that helps to underscore the momentous danger of every moment.
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s most well-crafted, if not best, film yet. It’s tough for a film like this to ask deep philosophical questions, and at his best, Nolan has the capacity to make films that can go quite deep (The Dark Knight continues to be his best film in my estimation). With that said, there are moments here that are unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. There may be better films to come later this year, but it’s hard to imagine a more overwhelming film than Dunkirk.