It takes something special to lure me into a cinema to watch a modern war movie, and the involvement of Christopher Nolan definitely piqued my interest, even though I thought that The Dark Knight Rises was a bloated misfire and Interstellar was deeply flawed. Thankfully, Dunkirk is a lean mean machine that dispenses with stilted dialogue about love, and in fact relies very little on the dialogue. It’s probably not an obvious comparison, but of all the recent movies Dunkirk reminded me the most of Mad Max: Fury Road, and not just because Tom Hardy’s face is covered up with a mask in both films. Like George Miller’s instant classic, Nolan’s latest is a visceral, purely cinematic survival story that made me feel like someone grabbed my insides, twisted them in a knot and didn’t let the grip go for a couple of hours. It’s a kind of movie where you need some time and preferably an energetic walk to decompress after.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s first bash at a historic genre, and tells the story of the Allied soldiers in World War II, who were cornered on the beaches in France by the German army. Faced with the possible annihilation of their troops, the British launched a desperate rescue operation. There are three distinct narratives in the film: one follows a young British soldier (), one of the trapped unfortunates. The second follows a small yacht operated by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who sets out with his teenage son and a young helping hand as a part of the rescue fleet. The third narrative takes place in the air, where British Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) engage the German planes heading for Dunkirk in aerial dogfights. Nolan also continues his obsession with time by placing the three narratives into different but ultimately overlapping time periods. To be honest I wasn’t sure if this non-linear approach was really necessary, but since it didn’t ruin the film either I didn’t object to it.
The movie pulled me in right from its opening scene, where you see Whitehead’s character walk down an eerily empty and silent street. All of a sudden, there’s a sound of gunfire from an unseen enemy, and before you know it all five of our boy’s companions are mowed down. It’s so intense and vivid and if my guts could express a thought it would probably be, holy crap this is probably what being in a war feels like, not knowing where the next bullet is going to come from. And then the movie doesn’t drop this gruelling mode until maybe the last ten minutes. The extraordinary cinematography captures just about every physical fear in existence – fire, drowning, heights, dark and confined spaces, you name it. It does it so well in fact I was made slightly nauseous by the spinning and swooping aerial scenes. The pulse-racing score by Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, with the sound of a ticking clock as its backbone, helps tie the narratives together and ratchets up tension even further.
The decision to portray the characters in-the-moment, without any backstories or conventional character arcs, might not sit well with everyone. For my part, I got invested into every character’s fate and liked the decision to develop them through their onscreen actions and physical performances. While Whitehead’s young and vulnerable soldier is clearly the audience stand-in, Rylance and Hardy’s characters are more heroic, though in a very reserved, understated British fashion. Overall, the lack of sentimentality and any kind of speechifying and flag-waving was very welcome. Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and an impressive debut by Harry Styles round off the superb ensemble cast.
Mum and I watched the movie at the Melbourne IMAX theatre, and I really can’t recommend enough catching Dunkirk on the biggest screen you can. I wouldn’t say it’s an “enjoyable” experience per se, but immersive and impressive, heck yes.