Time has always been of crucial significance to Christopher Nolan’s films, not just from the perspective of distorting linear narrative structures, but in the way they can corrode away at good men, enhance the severity of a situation, and add weighted circumstance and tension to any given sequence of events position. In Dunkirk – his depiction of the catastrophic evacuation effort of World War II – Nolan and musical collaborator Hans Zimmer begin the soundscape with ticking from the off, thrusting us into a race against the clock that continues to build until the final moments in one of the most exhilarating and intense war epics ever put to film.
What Dunkirk achieves over its reasonable runtime is a multifaceted glimpse into the scale of the event as seen through a triptych perspective from land, sea and air. But Nolan being the structural master that he is won’t simply let that be, instead stretching out the action of locations from multiple timeframes (Land by week, Sea by day, Air by hour) into an astonishing tableau of active engagement and suspended tension. Though it sounds as tricksy as many of his other pictures, the experience of seeing the collision of these timelines as they converge and crossover one another in the push toward the final movement is a seamless fusion of visual and editing ingenuity the likes of which only a seasoned technical professional could possibly pull of successfully – and that he does.
Beyond the spectacular construction that has been formed of its narrative strands, this is by far and away the most ambitious technical achievement of Nolan’s entire career. The emphasis on raw spectacle, physical action and authentic representations of detail, locations and vehicles gives the film an earthy and dirty feeling as the pyrotechnics fly and ships sink into the ocean every other scene. The look of the film – shot almost entirely in IMAX – is breathtakingly absorbing with Hoyte van Hoytema delivering his best ever work as cinematographer. His chilly frames of wide scope and stunning clarity place you right there alongside the characters with a tactile precision and ingenuity not often afforded to mainstream blockbusters. From the angles of sinking ships as water consumes the frame from left to right, to IMAX cameras fixed to the exteriors of era specific spitfire aircraft in the middle of a prolonged dogfight, it is wholly absorbing and awe-inspiring to witness alongside the violent and oppressively piercing sound design and exceptional score.
Alongside the traditional filmmaking techniques employed, Nolan’s focus on the power of the image leads the audience over the crux of dialogue. Many sequences at The Mole unfold with minimal dialogue exchanges, having people thrust together in fits of agency and desperation as a means of survival as the unseen but ever omnipresent enemy close in on them. When dialogue is spoken it is usually of essential importance regarding exposition, with little to no time wasted on backstory or in-depth characterisation. What character arcs could possibly be focused upon when the scope of the canvas is this large?
This is a depiction of a single moment in time, with its eyes fixed firmly on the end game of getting the soldiers home across the channel; an objective that is at all times out of grasp but devastatingly (literally) within sight from the shoreline.
What characters there are exist solely as perspectives to the unfolding calamity, but are duly granted their personality through their performances that are given. The heavy hitters of the cast take their roles in their stride, with Kenneth Branagh’s pier-master overseeing the procedure with stoic grace, Mark Rylance fulfilling his duty for king and country as one of the mariner’s to the rescue, Tom Hardy acting his eyes off in an exquisitely underplayed and confined role as a Royal Air Force pilot, and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked and broken soldier, who’s demons are made all the more difficult to imagine considering we never see the disaster that he has apparently bared witness too.
But its Nolan’s faith in casting unknown youths at the forefront of the story that makes this all the more horrifyingly realistic in depiction. Young men, barely out of school, miles from home and bleeding, starving and fighting for their lives as the world falls apart around them. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead heads the pack with an almost wordless performances as The Mole’s central POV figure, while Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan deliver saddening pathos as they sail into war alongside Rylance. Harry Styles, for all the fuss kicked up about the former One Direction singer’s casting, turns out to be a fantastic choice of actor in the film’s most volatile and disturbing role.
Dunkirk is a relentless, heart pounding and bold new addition to the canon of Hollywood war epics. As you stare it down you can feel the sheer power of cinema bellowing back at you with unbridled force. This is the first picture since Inception in which Nolan appears to have felt right at home with the material, on grounding he can quantify and exercise his prowess with latitude and meticulousness – and might be the filmmaker’s best and most practical work to date.