Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is an absolutely incredible experience. Every single element of this film comes together; supporting and building on each other and delivering something that is powerful in its emotion and wholly engaging in its presentation. Almost from the moment the film starts, you are pulled into a true story that is unbelievable to witness, and never-failing in its momentum. There is much to break-down and talk about with Dunkirk, so let’s get out of the intro and on with the review.
The film tells the true story of the mass evacuation of nearly four-hundred thousand British soldiers from Dunkirk, in 1940. The troops on the beach are stranded and waiting for any ship to take them home. The RAF are doing their best to fight off the Luftwaffe planes that are attacking both the troop filled beaches and the allied ships that are attempting to transport the soldiers home. And any British ship that is available, is doing all that they can to get as many soldiers off the beaches and back to safety. It seems like a doomed task all round, but determination and guts will see everyone involved doing everything they can, to see the mission end in success.
I want to first start off by stating that I saw Dunkirk in IMAX, and so that will of course be a major influencer on my experience and how I talk about the film. I also want to stress the point now, that you absolutely must see the film in IMAX. Nolan intended for the film to be seen that way and I agree that it should be experienced in that setting. But now let’s get onto the specifics of the film, shall we.
The film is stunning. Every single shot is packed with layers upon layers of things to see, take-in and digest. The epic aerial shots of Spitfires roaring through the sky. Long, harsh looking beaches, filled with tiered, wounded soldiers who want nothing more than to be home. The treacherous waters where danger comes from both above and below. Dunkirk never stops with its tragic beauty. And much of it is aided by the scale that IMAX is able to show. There is much to take in, and all of it feels so real, so visceral and so emotionally overwhelming.
But Dunkirk doesn’t just grab the attention of your eyes. Your ears play just as much of a part as well. The sound design of the film echoes throughout your body. The harsh brutality of the bullets as they came ploughing towards the soldiers. The terrifying scream of the German Stukas, as they dive-bombed the beaches. Or the triumphant roar of the Spitfire’s, Rolls Royce engine, as it fought off the enemy. It all sounds so authentic and it is completely commanding in its presentation.
There was clearly much care and attention put into getting everything to look and sound exactly as it should have. It made for an experience that fully enveloped you in what was happening and at all times deserved your attention. I was transfixed by Dunkirk and not only because of the visual and auditory perfection. No, there are still many more reasons why I was glued to this film.
The films pacing is another reason. Dunkirk is a film that is always moving. The momentum of this film never breaks, never falters. And there are a few ways in which Nolan achieves that. The first one that comes to mind is Hans Zimmer’s score. A score that compliments and supports every moment of the film. Zimmer’s score is the heartbeat of the film. It pulsates through each scene; giving things a sense of urgency. It elevates the already intense atmosphere of the film and creates a sort of rhythm.
This helped to keep things moving, as Dunkirk is always cutting between its three points in time. Because you see, the structure of Dunkirk is unconventional. It isn’t a linear narrative. It instead shows things from different points in time – jumping to points that take place after others then jumping back to earlier points within the story. It’s difficult to explain in written form, but if you’ve seen the film then you understand.
Not only did Nolan need to do this (because of how the actual events of Dunkirk occurred) but I actually found it to be a much more engaging way of telling the story. To see the fate of a character from a different point of view and then later on be there to experience it from their personal point of view, added an interesting layer of engagement with the film. I had an idea of what was to come, but I didn’t have all of the information. It would later be given to me in full and I was very easily able to connect the dots. Frankly, if you struggle with the structure of Dunkirk and how it presents its narrative, I personally think the blame is more on you than it is the film. If you pay attention and you follow the film, you shouldn’t have any trouble understanding what’s happening.
What I also liked about the films structure was how it allowed the many aspects of the film to feed into one another and then build upon both what had come before and what was yet to come. Other filmmakers might have struggled to put all the pieces of the film together in a way that felt coherent, but Nolan’s past experience in building complex narratives (Memento, Inception) made this film easy to follow and different enough that I was always engaged and never lost.
And it also helps that Nolan never pulls the focus away from the events of Dunkirk. There isn’t an unnecessary moment where we cut to a war-room where a group of officers discuss what is happening. We don’t get expository filled dialogue, we don’t see maps with little pieces being pushed around on them. The whole film stays with the events – with the action. It helps to always keep you in the moment and it doesn’t unnecessarily complicate things. The structure and the pace of the film would have surely suffered – faltered – had the film not always been at Dunkirk and the surrounding events, focusing on what happened and who mattered. The struggle of the characters, the horror and the never-ending fear of it all, would have been robbed of their intensity and their ability to continue to show just how impossible their situation was. It was smart for Nolan to do this – to keep it at all times focused.
And so with the films ever shifting focus, it means there isn’t a sole main character. Instead there is an ever revolving selection of characters who all have their very particular roles to play. Nolan is one of those directors who always gets the absolute best performance from his actor, and Dunkirk is further proof of that. The film is light on dialogue (the opening of the film for example, has almost no dialogue for what seems like 10 minutes). Much of what is asked of the actors is physical. We learn much more from reading the look on the actors faces or taking in their surroundings rather than the ore conventional way of having characters discuss the events taking place or how they are feeling in the moment. No one stops to have a heart-to-heart; there is no bantering between soldiers. It is all about taking in the information of the moment and processing it for yourself. And it helps that Nolan put together an excellent cast of actors who never once fail to deliver on their performance – and Tom Hardy comes to mind, as for nearly the whole film, his face is obscured behind a mask, meaning only his eyes are visible. Despite the lack of Tom Hardy’s face, you can still perfectly discern the emotion he is trying to deliver. The man’s a wizard of acting.
But there was a performance that stood out to me in particular (beyond the mastery of Tom Hardy) and that was Fionn Whitehead’s – who plays Tommy. For the majority of the film he has almost no dialogue. All of his struggle is through the actions he does. His facial reactions and his physical reactions to things are how we learn more about his story. It’s why his performance was one that stood out to me. He had the job of telling his story not through the conversations he had with other soldiers; he never had the chance to stop and tell us a little about home. No, pretty much all that he does during the events of Dunkirk is simply through how he emotionally deals with all of the terror that he’s dragged into. That’s not an easy thing to do and it takes quite a bit of skill to be able to hold an audience’s attention like that and make them understand you. Whitehead does it brilliantly, and Nolan has certainly chosen an actor who will go onto surely have a great career.
The events of Dunkirk are relentless in how cruel they are. And you can not only see that by looking at the hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach, but also through the individual characters and their harrowing, difficult journeys. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is only one part of the larger story of Dunkirk. Whether it is Commander Bolton – played by Kenneth Branagh – trying to organise any ship he can, to get the soldiers off the beaches, or Mr. Dawson – played by Mark Rylance – who is committed to getting his boat to Dunkirk and saving as many people as he can, or RAF pilot Farrier – played by Tom Hardy – who will take out as many enemy planes as he can, no matter the risk. Dunkirk is a film that is full of individual stories of people who all inadvertently worked together to make sure the evacuation of Dunkirk wasn’t one of the worst disasters in British military history. They all play their part and each part overtime builds upon and feeds into the other. Finishing in a cohesive, harrowing, adrenaline filled experience.
And Nolan is able to achieve that intensity, that authenticity, by doing what he does in all of his films: relying on as much practicality and realism as he can, when it comes to his set-pieces, action scenes and generally just the things that fill the scenes. Nolan acquired ships that were active during World War 2 and re-purposed them to look like the British destroyers that would have been there during the time. He got aerial shots of Spitfires performing manoeuvres. He had explosions going off, he designed and built rigs for the scenes in which ships sank. Nolan made it all feel real and used as little CGI as possible.
That’s what makes him and his films standout from the rest of the pack, when it comes to big budget films like this. Where other directors would simply create the majority of the difficult stuff with a computer, he prefers to go out there and shoot it for real. Making for a film that not only gets realistic reactions from the actors, but is able to immerse the audience in something that looks genuine. This is the man who when he needed to flip a truck in the middle of Chicago (in the Dark Knight), he didn’t CGI in a truck, he just went out and flipped a god damn truck.
Dunkirk looks and feels so real, and it’s not only because Nolan went to the effort to have as much of it be look and feel as authentic as possible. It’s because he also made sure every other aspect of the film supported one another. The visuals, the sound design, the score, the events that happened. Everything was meticulous in its detail, and it was simply sublime to witness.
Once again, Christopher Nolan proves that he is one of the best in Hollywood right now. He continues to create films that leave their mark on the greater world of cinema, and Dunkirk is a film that certainly left its mark on me.
Dunkirk was emotionally difficult, it was an incredible filmmaking spectacle, and most of all it was a story that held every bit of my attention.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind, I am recommending Dunkirk. What else can I say at this point, other than get yourself out to the cinema and experience this film. And if you can see it in IMAX, then absolutely make the effort to do so. And while you’re doing that, I’m off to see the film for a second time.
Now that you’ve finished my review of Dunkirk, you may be interested in checking out a piece I did where I ranked all of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. So if you click this link, you’ll be whisked over to that.
I would love to know what you thought of the film and what you thought of the review. So feel free to leave any opinions, feedback etc. in the comments down below. If you’re interested in knowing when I post something new, may I suggest following my blog directly or following me on Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. I leave you now by saying thank you for reading my review and I hope you have a wonderful day.