Christopher Nolan’s latest war epic is clearly crafted by a filmmaker at the top of his game. Brutal yet mesmerising, Dunkirk is evidently one of the year’s must-see films.
War is complicated and messy. Too many blockbusters present a skewed version of history where there are clear cut heroes and villains. Dunkirk’s ambition is not to have you fist pumping and cheering, it’s to have you witness the reality and ultimate futility of war.
The story behind the real-life evacuation of Dunkirk beach is a miraculous one, but Nolan’s film is not a straightforward documentation. The historical setting provides a backdrop to a group of fictional characters that all manage to feel real. Most are troops, played by fresh-faced young men or civilians out of their depth. Even those in authority are nameless or simply referred to by surname.
The film’s division of narrative focus is one of its greatest strengths. In a genius move the story is split into three segments, all running parallel but at different speeds. We spend a week with the troops on the ground, a day with a rescue ship at sea and an intense hour with the RAF in the sky. Occasionally this allows the viewer a certain degree of premonition of what is to come for certain characters, which only adds to a sense of growing dread.
The ensemble cast assembled by Nolan all fit into place perfectly, even Harry Styles as a British Tommie trying to survive. He may not be able to consider a career change yet, but he certainly fits in among a group of frightened individuals who have no idea what they’re doing. Special credit also has to be given to Tom Hardy, proving that alongside his portrayal of Bane, he can do a lot of acting with his eyes when the rest of his face is obscured.
The film plays out almost like a virtual reality experience. You soon forget you’re watching a film. You’re there on the beach, you’re on a boat as it sinks, you’re in the cockpit undertaking enemy fire. The editing and sound design are both to be praised, ensuring that Dunkirk is truly a captivating cinematic experience.
It deserves to be seen by a wide audience, both to appreciate the achievements of Nolan and the film’s crew, but also to spread awareness of what happened at Dunkirk and what we can learn from it. It might not be as uplifting as other filmmakers would make it, but Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a provocative and unique triumph.