With his tenth feature film, writer-director Christopher Nolan mostly breaks away from his traditional roots and plunges his audience in what seems to be a rather intense and unprecedented depiction of the sheer brutality and palpable turmoil experienced by the NAF soldiers during 1940’s Operation Dynamo. This was where a miraculous rescue mission was attempted for close to 400,000 soldiers of the Northern Allied Forces who were cut off from the rest of France, trapped in a pocket centred on the port of Dunkirk. But this is hardly your traditional WWII war film that plays out like an elaborate seventh grade history lesson. If anything, the backdrop of these events is seldom mentioned, as Mr. Nolan invests most of the film’s modest runtime in trying to give you a first hand experience of the chilling atmosphere with his technical virtuosity and storytelling style, rather than explaining the mostly unnecessary “whodunnit” aspect of things with classic war film clichés – and that is a feat in itself.
Speaking of the plot and characters – unlike Nolan’s previous films, Dunkirk does not rely on a central protagonist with an elaborate backstory. Instead, the film feels like a wild and organic jigsaw puzzle where we narrow in on just a handful of characters from various perspectives during the rescue operation, and one really needs to combine all these pieces to see the larger picture that is being formed in the process. Tommy, a young Brit soldier (played by Fionn Whitehead), alongside his comrade (Damien Bonnard) is trapped on the ground, and both of them constantly try to find their way out of the Dunkirk pocket by crossing the English channel. At the same time, Mr. Dawson, a local mariner (played brilliantly by Mark Rylance) is recruited to assist with the evacuation attempts alongside his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan), and we follow the father as he tries to instil a sense of right and wrong in his son. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy & Jack Lowden play British pilots trying to assist with Operation Dynamo against the German aerial warfare branch, Luftwaffe. Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles (Yup, that One Direction chap) make a pretty decent impression as well.
From the opening frame, the film progresses with a celerity that transcends the bounds & fidelity of a traditional war film. I can’t emphasise this enough – but Nolan skilfully plays around with cliche, knows when he is entering that territory, and pulls out right at the very last moment, leaving us with a sea of awe-inspiring sequences. He brings back the horrific atmosphere and the sense of urgency that was paramount at the time for the troops, marines & civilians to make this rescue mission a success. A majority of the actors in the film are not household names, and yet all of them leave a lasting impression making this experience worthwhile. A big shout out to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who helps set the tone of the film from the very first frame – it tells you all you need to understand in order to anticipate the magnitude of situation they are in. The set pieces are simply brilliant, and the ticking clock sounds in Hans Zimmer’s masterful score ensure that you know that time is the most valuable asset at the disposal of these trapped souls.
Speaking of some minor shortcomings – while the overall sense of a much larger story being told is rewarding in its own way, the film does suffers slightly due to the lack of a sharply defined protagonist, as this structure never really instils a sense of personal attachment with any of the characters as it did with previous Nolan flicks. The prolonged synchronisation of some parallel-plot points doesn’t really add up to make an impressive end product. Still, that’s a minor quibble as Nolan’s technical finesse is sufficient to overshadow all the minor flaws in an otherwise grand cinematic event. This is more of an experience to be had, rather than a film to be merely watched. I would recommend that you drive to your nearest IMAX theatre to watch the film in its intended glory.
At a runtime of 106 minutes, this happens to be Chris Nolan’s shortest film to date. (second shortest, if you count 1998’s Following) Lack of sharply etched characters and dramatic lapses notwithstanding, Dunkirk is easily Mr. Nolan’s best film since 2008’s The Dark Knight (Still my favourite – a masterful masking of a crime thriller under the name of a superhero film), and it will go down in history as one of the best and most unconventional war film classics to have seen the light of day.
Going with a 4/5 for Dunkirk. Don’t miss it for the world.