Dunkirk comes at a critical juncture in the career of Christopher Nolan. His previous directorial work Interstellar had its moments, but ultimately spun out into a mess of sentimentality and narrative absurdity. If Nolan’s decision to helm a film based on a historic event for the first time didn’t pay off, he may have found himself dealing with shrinking budgets and suspicious studio heads in the future.
Yet the film breathes new life into the well-known story of the mass evacuation of British soldiers from the beaches of France in 1940, and reaffirms Nolan’s status as one of, if not the best, directors working today. Dunkirk is able to combine multiple storylines across a variety of locations with a deft touch and an unrelenting pacing that evokes the intensity and desperation of the event itself. This is a less overtly bloody depiction of the Second World War than last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but the threat level remains constant and the action frenetic. The pacing of the script and a tight running time are all elevated by Hans Zimmer’s score, utilising the so-called ‘shepherd tone’ to give an atmosphere of constant tension.
Nolan continues to refuse to film in 3D, as well as maintaining an admirable practice of incorporating visual and CG effects only when they contribute to the film narrative. This relative absence of CGI and high production values allows for a more visceral feel to the destruction and violence wrought onscreen. Combined with the faded colour schemes it serves to give the film a feel of colorised Second World War footage. It has been stressed by a number of critics that the best way to see Dunkirk is on an IMAX 70mm film, though I was still impressed seeing the film on a standard 2D cinema screen.
This balance of spectacle and story allows for excellent set piece events such as the torpedoing of a Destroyer, combined with some strong acting performances throughout. A standout is the always excellent Mark Rylance, portraying a father taking his ‘pleasure boat’ and two sons out into a war-zone. After Ed Sheeran’s woeful cameo in Game of Thrones I was gritting my teeth for Harry Styles. But Styles gives a competent, committed performance and justifies his expanded screen time as a private desperate for self-preservation. The most outrightly heroic of all characters are those in the air reminding an audience of ‘how much was owed by so many to so few’, and Tom Hardy stands out without overshadowing the film in his role as a stoic Spitfire pilot.
If there are any under utilised actors it’s Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, who serves as more of a mouthpiece for plot exposition than a functioning character. While his exchanges with Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) do give an overview of the events, there are also some muddles in individual storylines that go beyond the mere fog of war. But as an overall product Dunkirk is a spectacular accomplishment, reminding an audience of the sacrifice and danger of the times. The brief focus on each character could have led to a dehumanising work, but instead connects a raw humanity with the wider consequences and impact of the evacuation.
Nolan said of Dunkirk that he ‘wanted to do something that scared him’. This successful embrace of the unknown has expanded his oeuvre far beyond the Dark Knight Trilogy and high concept sci-fi, and resurrected the possibility of Nolan becoming a modern day Kubrick able to excel at any genre he puts his hand to.