Christopher Nolan is a peculiar creature. A cold, clinical director who casts Method actors on his film, he is at his greatest when displaying masterful technical images (Interstellar) or intrinsically intellectual films (Memento). Or both, like in Inception. Dunkirk would not fit either of the categories, so Nolan decided to give it a gimmick – time. Three stories – land, sea and air, each on different timescales (month, day and hour) – cross each other, flashbacking and flashforwarding as the enemy (that we never see up close) comes nearer and nearer.
As the different timelines work towards the crescent tension of it all (we never get a breather), individual stories – with many famous faces peppered about, from Tom Hardy to Kenneth Branagh , and including Harry Styles (!!!) – show us the personal impact of war on foot soldiers, fighter pilots and the not so random commoner with a recreational boat. The dialogues are sparse, the sound mixing makes the enemy surround us, like an invisible force, the editing is out of this world (courtesy of Nolan’s usual collaborator and nominee Lee Smith) and the soundtrack… I’m sorry, but the soundtrack is way too overwhelming. Hans Zimmer was never known for his subtlety, and in Dunkirk he goes about scoring with the delicate touch of a Blitz bombing. As the film holds its own at an emotional level (tension and fear come easy to Nolan), Zimmer’s music, with its incessant FEEL THINGS NOW quality, it’s more than just a tad too much.
Dunkirk is not an actors’ film (there isn’t space for character development when the bullets keep flying around), and the performances are almost erased in favour of the action sequences, all beautifully lensed by Hoyte van Hoytema (a real name – with credits such as Her, Interstellar and Let the Right One In) – and, you’ll be glad to hear, with near-zero shaky camera effects. The horrors of war come to you mostly by sound – the gunshots, the torpedos, the bombings – and by the off-greenish tint that colours everything, almost mimicking a corpse.
A technical marvel, Dunkirk is a film about survival, with no concessions to heroism in the classical sense, about a retreat from a pointless and lost fight, that came with heavy losses, and that – it is implied – almost cost the Allies the war. It’s a perspective barely seen, and the ending – where some of our characters return home to be greeted with beers and cheers, but under the sense of doom and defeat – is not from your average war movie. As it stands, Nolan’s film is more of an experience than a narrative, and definitely one to have in a big screen.
Dunkirk was in UK cinemas from 21st July 2017.