A new Christopher Nolan film is always a bit of an event, but I was a bit nervous about this release, as I’m not necessarily a war film person. However, Nolan combined with a cast featuring Every British Actor meant that I spent a couple of hours in the cinema very soon after it was released. It is just so very good.
Nolan being Nolan, Dunkirk is not told in a straight-forward way. Rather it is split between one week on land, focusing on three young army members (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard & Harry Styles [yes that one]) trying to get off the beach; one day at sea, where the story follows a group of civilians (Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney & Barry Keoghan) who sail to Dunkirk to attempt to help; and one hour in the air with two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy & Jack Lowden). The three storylines intersect in incredibly clever ways, which means that you any relief you may feel at any point is short-lived.
Coupled with this twisty plot is an incredible sound-scape, which at its heart contains a wonderfully chilling Hans Zimmer score, which borrows from ticking clocks, bomb blasts and screeching plane engines to ratchet up the tension at all times. The score only really swells (into a famous Elgar piece) towards the end of the film to really moving effect.
The film is a true ensemble effort and there is no poor performance amongst any of the actors. As a complete unknown, Fionn Whitehead is very good as the central performance with very minimal dialogue. Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh also both give very sensitive performances, the former as the civilian who sails his boat to try and make a difference and Branagh as the naval commander who has the heartbreaking job of deciding who gets to leave the beach on the rescue boats. Tom Hardy spends much of the film acting with his eyes and voice, and is incredibly effective despite being literally removed from much of the action. Cillian Murphy has perhaps the most difficult job, playing a shell-shocked soldier who has to face up to some terrible decisions and actions throughout the film.
I tend to stay away from war films because they can often feel a bit overly flag-wavingly patriotic which makes me Uncomfortable. However, Nolan make this film unflinchingly real, by placing the camera so close to the action, you feel as though you are trapped in a ship’s hold or in a cockpit filling with water or surrounded by burning oil. At no point is there any of the fun jape feel that some war films have. I found myself completely emotional drained by the end of the film but that is only a sign of just how affecting Nolan’s work is. A must see.