Dunkirk is the latest film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Based during World War II, the movie tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, specifically the British soldiers, who, among others, were trapped by the German army on one side and the English Channel on the other. The film stars Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and a whole host of other people I don’t know.
The entire film is centered around the evacuation of the British soldiers from the shore. We don’t get to see what happened before, nor what happens after that. The premise of the movie isn’t terribly interesting, even though it’s an important part of history. So in order to sell this, the direction would have had to be really good, and fortunately for the film, it is.
For me, more than the story itself is the way Christopher Nolan tells it is more impressive. Nolan has shown us that he likes to play around with the linearity of time, often switching back and forth between different moments in time at different places and stitching them seamlessly without calling attention to them. In Dunkirk, the film often switches rapidly between events that are happening at not just different places but also at different points of time. If you paid attention to the title cards at the beginning and also the other key events that take place, you know when the film deftly switches over to another point in time. There are even moments when you see a scene being played back again from a different person’s perspective.
I understand this can be confusing, and sometimes it is. But I also tremendously loved this aspect of the film. What really sold it to me is that even when the film jumps back and forth there is no loss in traction. There is no sudden change in tempo. This is done quite cleverly by matching the intensity of each moment, so if there is something tense happening in one place at one point and the film suddenly snaps to another place at another point, there is something equally tense happening over there.
Speaking of tension, being a war film there were always going to be scope for big set pieces and action heavy moments. However, the film dials it down to a believable notch and keeps it from going from war film to war porn. What you do get is still plenty intense with some amazing shots of aerial bombing and entire ships being sunk. The crowd pleaser is the aerial dog fight sequence, which is beautifully shot but again, believable.
The cinematography here is absolutely amazing. From the expansive aerial shots to the close quarter underwater sequences that will leave you gasping for breath along with the characters, Dunkirk paints a bleak yet beautiful picture. Nolan shot the film largely on 70mm IMAX cameras and has put it to incredible use. While there are no more 70mm IMAX theaters in India, the one I watched in had the next best thing, which is IMAX Xenon digital projection that uses a tall 1.90:1 aspect ratio for most of the scenes. When seen in a proper venue at the proper aspect ratio, the level of immersion is outstanding. It’s also proof that you don’t need 3D to suck your audience in when you have a good camera and cinematographer.
Of particular note here was the foley or the sound work. War movies usually have a bombastic audio track but Dunkirk just turns it up to eleven with the sheer intensity and impact of the sound. From the opening scene itself you will be left numb by the sound of gunshots that pierce through the silence (and your eardrums). This movie is LOUD but I loved every minute of it because of just how visceral it felt. And of course, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is once again on point, matching the on-screen tension beat by beat and rounding it off beautifully along with the sound effects.
Coming to the characters, the film never really focuses on any one character as such. The one who is most on screen is newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s character but at no point did he feel in charge or authoritative enough to be the main character. The only big name actors here are Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance. Hardy shows even less of his face in this film than The Dark Knight Rises, Murphy is mostly absent and Rylance is the only one who really stands out in this ensemble. Oh, and there’s also Harry Styles in this film, who I thought was quite good. Even though one of these is on screen at any point, at the end it still feels like you didn’t really see any of them. That’s because none of their characters have any kind of background or buildup and sometimes it feels they didn’t even have any names. The film treats the war and the evacuation itself as its main characters and often forgets about the actual humans in it. I’m not sure if making its characters as disposable as the actual soldiers in the war was a conscious decision but it plays off well. In the end, all you remember is the war and not who fought in it.
I’ll admit, Dunkirk might not be to everyone’s taste. The timeline could be confusing to some, the characters too weak and the story, when seen on its own, too simple and anti-climatic. Still, as a sum of its parts, Dunkirk worked really well for me and except maybe the story element I ended up appreciating everything about it. The action was intense yet believable, the way the story was told was fascinating, the cinematography was spectacular and the sound work was terrific. For me it was an enjoyable watch and if I had to rate it I would give it a 4/5.