A review of Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk.
House Keeping: Dunkirk was released in the UK on the 21st July, was written and directed by Nolan and runs for approx. 1hr 46mins.
One sentence synopsis: Soldier get on a boat, and then its destroyed. Repeat x 10.
Rating: ten oil-covered soldiers out of ten.
Honestly, this film is horrifically good. I’m often turned off by war films because of the endless military jargon, as well as the glorification of violence. Dunkirk, with its stark display of the terror experienced by ordinary men sent to fight in WWII, and its beautifully simple plot, avoids both of these pitfalls.
Let’s start with the aspect of the film which hits the audience first – the cinematography. The re-occurring wide shots of the beach dotted with stranded soldiers really communicates the scale and desperation of the effort to evacuate. The swerving shots of the fighter planes attempting to track their targets shows us the confusion and disorientation of the pilots. The close-ups on soldiers’ faces as they realize another wave of destruction is about to hit reminds the audience that these men are vulnerable. As you can probably tell, I really can’t sing the praises of Hoyt van Hoytema and Nolan’s cinematographic work enough.
The plot of the film is admittedly simple: 400,000 soldiers are stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated, whilst under fire from enemy forces. The film also follows a civilian boat attempting to rescue some of these soldiers, and three RAF pilots aiding in the fight. That’s all. No surprise shark attacks. No long-winded war-room strategy meetings. No M Night Shyamalan twists. And it is all the more glorious for its simplicity; we cannot be distracted by trying to remember who is who, or the complex character arcs, or what the objective is. There’s nothing but the horror of what is happening to these men, and as an audience we have no choice but to sit and gain significant muscle definition through tensing our abs in anticipation of the next bombing. We are completely helpless, just like the soldiers before us. And in this way, the film becomes less of a neat narrative to follow (seen also in Nolan’s jumpy plot, which was a great addition but could have been put to more use) but an experience.
Hans Zimmer’s musical talent compliments the panic of the film – his score, with its high pitched strings, is akin to music from the horror genre. In a way, Dunkirk could be classed as a horror film of the scariest variety. The ticking incorporated into the score made for a tense count-down effect and the loudness of the music echoed the volume of a bombardment on the beaches.
As well as this, there was not a single performance during the film that took me out of the moment, the entire cast (even Harry Styles who delivered, though perhaps did not excel, in his role as the pessimistic Alex, in spite of my doubt vis a vis the casting choice). Kenneth Branagh, as always, is perfect as the stern yet compassionate Commander. Potentially my favourite aspect of the film is its relative lack of dialogue, especially at the beginning, when we witness approximately 20 minutes (I don’t get my stopwatch out in the middle of the cinema so you’ll have to make do with vaguery) of utter silence between Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). This serves to reinforce the sense of trauma that the film is all about.
I know it might be repetitive or overly simplistic to some, but I think Dunkirk was brilliant: visually stunning, with a haunting score and wonderful ensemble performance. In my opinion it is a great success, and a film which effectively conveyed the trauma of being trapped between the sea and the enemy. (Plus while I was in the cinema the air con broke and it was swelteringly hot and some people had to leave because it was too hot but I didn’t even notice because I was too engrossed in the film. So it’s gotta be good right?)