Dunkirk (Warner Bros/Syncopy) Cert 12A, 106 mins
If I’d worn a heart monitor attached while watching Dunkirk I think it would have melted. This movie grabs you from the opening scene and keeps a tight grip until the closing credits. It’s a breathtaking feat of cinematic achievement by director Christopher Nolan driven on by relentless drama, action and a masterful score by Hans Zimmer which takes the audience through an at times harrowing exploration of the real life Dunkirk evacuation during World War 2.
Told in a split narrative following events on land, sea and in the air, it’s a fictional tale with fictional characters but elements of it are based on eyewitness accounts and stories from the actual Operation Dynamo. That was the code-name for the rescue mission to get 400,000 British troops trapped in France away from rapidly approaching German soldiers and the mobilisation of civilian boats to get the stranded Brits home. A critical point early in the conflict, the power behind the story is that what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk actually happened.
It’s this knowledge that adds to the breathless nature of the film. Whilst it’s not based on real people, what unfolds on the screen is a visceral reflection of what took place. At times you can feel the ships rocking from German bombs and torpedoes. You rise and fall with the waves as troop carriers are attacked and sink. You feel like you’re in the water with the soldiers as what they thought was safe passage home to Britain turns into a watery tomb.
Christopher Nolan is a revered director responsible for some truly epic movie going experiences. His work from Memento to the Dark Knight Trilogy to Interstellar showcases a superb talent for thought provoking cinema featuring character, story and a unique direction. Nolan is not the biggest fan of CGI in movies and his films are brought to life with more practical effects wherever possible. Indeed for this film he had working models of the civilian boats which did actually feature in the evacuation built and used replica aircraft when shooting the aerial battles.
He’s collaborated with Hans Zimmer on numerous films and the score is another highlight. Famed for big BWWWWAHHH noises it’s certainly loud but soon fades into the background despite the volume. But you still know it’s there. It taps away at you with a feverish and demanding pace at times and is a supremely effective mechanism for ramping up the tension. It’s that attention to detail and authenticity that sets a Nolan film aside from the norm and when you see his name on the credits as director you know you’re in for a vivid, engaging and ultimately entertaining event movie. Apart from Inception which I absolutely hated but more on that another time <dodges bricks and bottles galore>.
Nolan filmed a huge portion of Dunkirk on IMAX and large format film cameras so this is a film which is if possible best seen on an IMAX screen or the biggest your local cinema has to offer. It’s a visual feast for the eyes as we travel from land to sea to air and back again across the film and the decision to shoot most of the movie on the larger formats pays off. The aerial battles as Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot Farrier tries to shore up the effort to stop the Germans sinking every ship which attempt to leave the harbour at Dunkirk. You feel every turn in the air, ascent through the clouds and every bullet fired.
The scenes at sea are just as epic. I am not a fan of boats, ships or any other sea faring vessels and open water just plain freaks me out. Some of the scenes felt so real I found myself holding my breath during scenes where ships under attack flooded with water and the troops struggled to escape. And that’s the power of Nolan’s direction and choice to shoot as many scenes with practical effects as possible. It adds an extra layer of realism and when all is said and done makes you appreciate what the real evacuees – those who made it home and those who sadly lost their lives – went through.
When Nolan was firming up his plans for this film his research found that as with most wars a lot of the soldiers were young men sent out by their country to fight for freedom so he elected to cast most of the characters from unknown actors. There are some familiar faces – Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and some kid called Harold Styles who I believe is from a popular “boy band” the youth of today know as The One Directioners. Joking aside Styles actually delivers a decent first movie performance and while you know who he is when he first appears on screen you soon lose yourself back in the film and forget all about the pop star element. It’ll be interesting to see if he chooses to continue in film as he certainly has potential to be a good actor.
Refreshingly for a war drama Dunkirk is not an overly long film. It actually clocks in at just under two hours and is by far a better film for it. Too many directors and studios seem to think that having an epic film is partly down to a lengthy running time. Hint -it’s not. We don’t need to be in there for three hours to understand a film more or appreciate the sacrifices that generation made for us. If the story is told in the right way then it doesn’t have to take forever. Dunkirk actually felt like a longer film but time feels like it’s passing slowly when you are tense and holding your breath.
Christopher Nolan has shown again why his one of the most acclaimed directors and screenwriters around in Dunkirk. It’s a terrific film with great performances all round and superb cinematography which tell the real life story of the evacuation in a mesmerising and dramatic way without overcooking the story.
Destined to be hailed as one of the finest war films committed to the big screen.