TL;DR
  • Shortest Nolan film for a while – but crammed with excellent stuff
  • Multiple plot lines come together really well and make it a more interesting, diverse film
  • No portrayal of enemy and lack of lines and characterisation may contribute to a feeling of little humanity, but strong performances and powerful images counter this issue
  • Sound effects and music all edited to perfection – roaring of the planes particularly stand out
  • Terrifyingly realistic without having to make it gory; makes it less of a blockbuster
  • Horror of war shot beautifully; cinematography at its best
  • Rylance and Branagh are excellent as predicted; strong movie debut from Whitehead and Styles is far from the disaster everyone feared
  • One of Nolan’s best and already a classic war film

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Christopher Nolan is a big name in cinema today. A master known for bringing a sincerity to excitement; a man known for amazing and successful films; and a director known for long runtimes. Dunkirk is not a long film however. In fact it’s Nolan’s shortest film for some time with a runtime of just 106 minutes. However, this isn’t something to be worried about; there’s still plenty crammed into these 106 minutes with little to no padding. Every minute is absolutely worth it and they all add up to a modern masterpiece of war films.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
Set in 1940, allied soldiers from France and the UK are being pushed back to the beach of Dunkirk, where they wait patiently by the sea, hoping desperately to be rescued before the Germans catch up to them. Set around this we follow three distinct stories that converge together as the film goes on. We open with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British soldier, stuck at the beach for a week, desperate to survive no matter the cost. Secondly we have Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), daring British yachter, who sets off to Dunkirk in his yacht, accompanied by Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), keen to save the soldiers stuck across the channel, lasting a day. Finally there are RAF pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), protecting the soldiers and ships from the skies against the unrelenting attacks of the German planes.

Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC
In many ways, Dunkirk isn’t so much a war film as it is a horror film – perhaps they are both equal parts horror and war film (though a more unconventional horror film maybe). While not nearly as gory as many contemporary war films, from Saving Private Ryan to Hacksaw Ridge, the violence here is no less horrific, proving that blood and guts aren’t necessary for the horror of war to have an impact. The scenes of war aren’t trivialised; there’s no violence for violence’s sake. In fact as an audience, we almost rather there were no violence; you find yourself biting your nails, screaming in your head for them to run away rather than turn and fight – quite the opposite to your normal summer blockbuster. A lot of this is achieved through the sound. From Hans Zimmer’s haunting score (he’s on top of his game on this one, though the lack of a noticeable theme tune is a shame) to the scream of the German planes and the thud of the bullets and bombs as they find their unfortunate targets. These sounds are done so well; so loud and vivid, they’re terrifying to hear and really strengthens the scenes of war you see on screen.

© 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
This does however result in the portrayal of Germans as being a faceless enemy, devoid of any humanity. Although this is realistic in how the soldiers would have viewed the Germans, bolstering the immersion, it means that this film lacks that touch of humanity that can be seen in an enemy, often a really powerful element in war films (particularly in films such as All Quiet on the Western Front). In fact human touch in general is arguably the only main flaw of the film, with characterisation very muted and subtle. In there being no padding and immersing us in the horrors of Dunkirk, there’s very little time for us to get to know the characters and let them grow. This isn’t to say the characters are boring and we don’t care about them (quite the opposite), but there’s no memorable character to emerge from this – with the possible exception of Rylance’s Mr Dawson. Despite this the actors do very well with the very few lines they’re given. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden have great chemistry even from different planes as brave fighter pilots. Cillian Murphy in particular stands out as the shellshock soldier you could almost hate at some point, if it weren’t for Murphy’s terrifically complex performance squeezing sympathy from you. A strong opening film for newcomer Fionn Whitehead with an equally good performance from Harry Styles. Rest assured he’s not the disaster many feared. Leagues above singers-turned-actors like Beyonce and Rihanna, he can sit up at the top with the likes of David Bowie and Ed Sheeran (yes, I actually liked his cameo in Game of Thrones). British acting royalty Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton and Mark Rylance predictably are the acting highlights, bringing the patriotism in spades and much needed strong screen presences.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
However the reason lots of lines and exposition isn’t necessary is simply because Christopher Nolan is an expert filmmaker, realising that the true power of cinema is to show, not tell. This is a visual medium and is always at its strongest when it can show the story better than it can tell it. Again working with his same director of photography from Interstellar, Nolan lets Hoyte Van Hoytema perfectly capture the horrors of Dunkirk. A single, well-crafted, beautiful but terrifying shot can say more than 106 minutes of pure dialogue ever could; and nearly every shot has that kind of power. This is a quasi-masterclass in cinematography, showing the true power and versatility of film’s ability to portray story and emotion simultaneously.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon – © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC
A hauntingly beautiful film that succeeds on nearly every level. What it lacks in lines and characterisation, it makes up for in nuanced performances and plenty of emotion, the horror and realistic portrayal of war coming from the expertly crafted shots and excellently edited sound. Miles away from your typical summer blockbuster, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a rollercoaster of fear, noise, war and emotion – already bound to be a classic.

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