I saw Dunkirk last night in a packed cinema, and I’m pretty sure my ears are still ringing over 12 hours later.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film has all the makings of a blockbuster: a clear cut genre, huge budget and a wealth of star power. Dunkirk however feels a lot different from anything else I’ve seen on screen, definitely in terms of a war film for a long time.
First of all, there’s the narrative. It’s divided into three sections: the mole (aka the beach), which takes place over a week, the sea, whose timespan is a day, and the air which takes place in just an hour. This is indicated at the beginning of the film through intertitles but isn’t immediately made obvious, which lends an element of confusion at first. The film switches between these different narrative strands with ease, leaving the audience to keep track of all the various happenings in the narratives.
Although this is a war film, rather than simply another depiction of explicit violence, Nolan chooses to focus more on the psychological aspects of war. The enemy are never shown on the ground – there is only the gunfire from behind buildings and sand dunes that indicate their presence. This contributes to the intense claustrophobia that seeps through every scene set on the beach. Bombarded by bombs and gunfire from above and increasingly surrounded, the sense of desperation and urgency to get off the beach is tangible. This is furthered by Hans Zimmer’s eerie score, often returning to the motif of the ticking clock that dominates the soundtrack.
This psychological aspect of the film is probably one of the most interesting things about it. Dialogue is sparse – especially for a mainstream blockbuster – mostly reduced to military commands or hurried shouts. It shows the bravery as well as the fear in those trapped on the beaches and how their desparation could turn ugly. Up in the air, the long shots of the vast blue down below are contrasted with tight closeups on the faces of the two fighter pilots as they try to defend those stranded on the beaches.
There’s something incredibly beautiful about this film, as the camera captures both the beauty and danger of the sea, as well as the desolated beach, covered in sea foam and desperate men. Harsh waves are contrasted with beautiful vistas of the views from the sky, unnerving, tightly shot scenes in sinking ships are followed by the vast emptiness of the beach.
No character has any real backstory, there are no mentions of families or anything designed to manipulate the audience’s sympathy. Instead you become as focused as the characters in escaping the hell that they are trapped in. The actors themselves do a lot with a little, conveying emotion through their action rather than words. And it’s a stellar cast too: Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy are the big names, but there are great perfomances from Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard and Jack Lowden.
Even if you don’t like war films, I’d recommend it because Dunkirk is so much more than that.