In 1940 the German army pinned back the Allied forces in the French coastal city of Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, British and French, trapped like sitting ducks on the beaches, facing death. With battles on their home soil still being fought, and more yet to come, the fate of the British army’s life was left to a handful of destroyer ships, fighter pilots, and a fleet of every man sailors from the British Isles. Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s visceral retelling of this tragic and ultimately uplifting tale of human bravery.
We follow the unfolding events through a trio of points of view. Firstly, with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private who occupies the Mole – a long and precarious stretch on the beachfront – along with the bulk of his fellow soldiers. Secondly, with Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, who sets off to sea in his small fishing boat across the channel to recover as many souls as he possibly can. And finally, we track R.A.F. pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he weaves in and out of the fight, attempting to pick off enemy pilots before they can deploy their weaponry.
The focus is reasonably tight on these three characters and the action that immediately surrounds them in their key locations, and while the warfare elsewhere inland is momentarily touched upon early on, this is very much a concentrated rescue mission told from the perspective of both the rescuers and the rescued. All of whom are in for a torturous ride in their efforts. Bombs pound the sand leaving trails of bodies. Ships explode ferociously. Bullets rattle aeroplane engines. And we as an audience feel every attack along with the protagonists. With Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera placing us right in alongside each of the leads, we’re treated to an intense, incredibly realised barrage of sound, which when coupled with a near-constant ticking and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score leaves little reprieve. An exercise in tension seems like the perfect description.
Meanwhile, as should be expected of a Christopher Nolan film by now, it also proves to be wildly impressive visually. He’s done stories set in space, in world-bending dreamscapes, and in Batman’s backyard, and yet Dunkirk more than holds its own in the company of those films, retaining their huge scale, but also feeling stylistically fresh in comparison. And though I was blown away by the sound, the score, and the cinematography, there’s just the one caveat that I found myself less enamoured with; the structure. Whereas this is generally a surprisingly streamlined Nolan piece, he can’t quite resist playing a touch loosey-goosey with time. Still, it’s but a brief distraction, in an otherwise gorgeously crafted piece of storytelling.
This is cinema at its most cinematic.
Rating (out of 5):