Running time 1hr 46 min
DUNKIRK is, first and foremost, an experience. The threat of dive bombers is real and ever-present; the audience FEELS the
relentless, bitter cold of the titular Belgian beach, and Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, magisterial soundtrack animates the film’s 106 minutes with an unbearable sense of peril.
To put it mildly, you’ll need to PREPARE YOURSELF for a war movie of this rare intensity, and its dark power will likely leave you speechless for the remainder of the day.
Indeed, you won’t be alone there – there isn’t much talking whatsoever in Dunkirk, putting clear water between itself and both the Spielbergian tradition (think Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge) and this country’s own hallowed brand of soldier epic.
Christopher Nolan is noted for his near-obsessive efforts to set his audience apart from his characters, but never before has the director taken this Brechtian fundamentalism to such startling conclusions as he does here.
Even more ambitiously, Dunkirk is a psychological portrait, striving to convey emotion and damage whilst never directly inviting us into its protagonists’ gruelling reality.
A breathtaking mosaic of close-ups and apocalyptic landscapes, set to orchestral overtures that sound like they want to kill you, this is far closer in tone and format to the recent works of PT Anderson (There Will Be Blood and The Master, in particular) than anything in Nolan’s filmography, an unapologetically visual composition that takes the old film school mantra to heart: ‘Show, don’t tell.’
Having soaked in all the beautiful, beautiful carnage, your first thought will be; what on Earth have I just watched?
The central seaside town is, in fact, the site of one of Britain’s great military triumphs, the 1940 evacuation of more than 300,000 troops in the face of the Nazi drive across Europe; but, minus the brief interludes of a one-man Greek chorus (Kenneth Branagh’s pier-master), it could just as easily be Hell, a blistering world of fire and bodies and brine.
Historical fidelity is to be found in the more technical recesses of this grand cinematic vision (the dogfights are nothing less than a marvel; exposed to torpedo and airborne assaults, boats and men are rendered sitting ducks); thankfully, while Dunkirk provides a compellingly holistic representation of these fateful events (carried by a near-flawless cast – Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and, of all people, Harry Styles), it stays well away from politics and preachiness.
It is a film that knows the raw potency of its subject matter – soldiers, airmen and civilians fighting, above all, for their lives –, and which is keen to run with it.
Though one might be tempted to view Dunkirk as an experiment, a disaster saga in the mould of a war movie (conventional heroics are as sparse as chitchat in this scorching tale of human endurance), it’s a genuinely hard piece of filmmaking to categorise, a spectacle like neither genre has mustered in living memory.
While we mull that one over, feel free to lose yourself in its sound, its grit and its unadulterated fury, safe in the knowledge that an opus of its quality comes but once in the career of a great director.