Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles
Running time: 106 minutes
Release date: July 21
There are some films that demand to be seen in a cinema. Dunkirk is one of them. Director Christopher Nolan weaves together three narratives surrounding the rescue of British troops from the beach of Dunkirk during World War II in a tense, powerful and beautiful movie.
Nolan has assembled an impressive ensemble cast, comprising of seasoned veterans and emerging new faces, and Dunkirk contains no weak links (which will come as an enormous relief to fans of the competent Harry Styles). It is a film bursting with talent: Mark Rylance as the principled civilian sailor, Mr Dawson, stands out in particular. Tom Hardy continues his trademark ability to be incredibly expressive whilst about sixty percent of his face is covered. Fionn Whitehead gives a powerful and emotive performance, while Barry Keoghan is fantastic. Cillian Murphy delivers as the Shivering Soldier, while Kenneth Branagh is subtly commanding.
The need for a strong cast is clear from the outset– there is sparse use of dialogue and an emphasis on physicality and visual storytelling to carry the tale. The use of sound – and silence – is as impressive as the visuals. Hans Zimmer’s incredible score contributes to build such an intense atmosphere that it often feels as though everyone – including the audience – is holding their breath. Dunkirk does not rely on gore or graphic depictions of war wounds to evoke emotion; It plays on our senses, creating an aura of suspense, fear and trepidation that oozes out of the screen. Sinking ships create such an atmosphere of claustrophobia that you almost gasp for air yourself, a visceral reaction reminiscent of James Cameron’s Titanic. The visuals are stunning and it is striking how cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema often invokes poetic beauty in scenes of battle and disaster.
Dunkirk is not so much about war as it is about survival. Many characters are imperfect, flawed, and feel all the more authentic for it. We have no information on their lives outside of the events that we see on-screen – we don’t even know some of their names. This degree of anonymity creates a sense that these individuals could be anyone – perhaps even those watching in the audience. Dunkirk hammers home the reality of war without ever feeling as though it is preaching. Despite encompassing three different stories, Dunkirk brings the war to an individual level. There is no glory here, no monumental victory – all that they can do is survive. There is a quiet heroism, mixed with human vulnerability, on display. There are moments of kindness and compassion intertwined with actions born of fear and desperation. It is both hopeful and heartbreaking, and all the more powerful for it.
The three narratives span different time frames, beginning one week, one day and one hour before the evacuation respectively. The film cuts between them, following a non-linear trajectory that initially feels slightly chaotic, however the three tales eventually merge to weave together a nuanced and compelling narrative. With a running time of 106 minutes, it is considerably shorter than Nolan’s more recent work. Unlike the similarly impressive yet distinctly longer and more convoluted Inception, the compact length of Dunkirk reflects the stripped-back storytelling, subtle performances and gradual interconnecting of events. The emphasis is often placed on the human impact of Dunkirk, not on the usual graphic battle sequences that can dominate films depicting war and it is all the more compelling for it.
Dunkirk is intense, beautiful and powerful. The cinematography is stunning and quietly spectacular, shining on a cinema screen. It is a nuanced, breathtaking reflection on war, survival and human nature as well as an emotive illustration of storytelling itself. Do not miss out on the opportunity to see it.