Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Kenneth Brannagh, Cillian Murphy
Tick tick tick…
I’ve read that when Christopher Nolan – the director, writer and creative force behind Dunkirk – reached out to Hans Zimmer to compose the score for his film, he handed him a pocket watch for inspiration.
That pocket watch, with the relentless ticking of precious time ebbing away, ended up not just inspiring the soundtrack (which is fantastic) but the entire film. Tick tick tick as the Allies count down the hours until the German forces arrive on the beaches. Tick tick tick as the Allied soldiers try desperately to survive a hailstorm of bullets. Tick tick tick as civilian ships race across the Channel hoping to reach their soldiers in time. Tick tick tick…
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an impressive film and one of his finest works to date. I was initially a little dubious about a contemporary WWII film carrying an M-rating but I needn’t have worried. Nolan’s largely bloodless production still viscerally captures the horrors of war and the lower age classification broadens the audience Dunkirk can reach.
Listening to Nolan’s interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Five Live, he explained that he wanted to celebrate the heroes who represented ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ and tell their story to a new generation of cinema-goers. I think this is a very noble endeavour. It’s also nice to see wider representation of the Allies in the Second World War, specifically seeing a production that focuses on British and French soldiers. There are too many Hollywood films that make World War II look like a struggle solely between Americans and Germans.
With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan once again asserts himself as one of the most assured directors in Hollywood, delivering a film with complicated themes and intricate composition, which he trusts that his audience can follow.
The film has a muddled chronology, telling three different stories spanning different lengths of time (I. The Mole, II. The Sea, III. The Air).
Dunkirk is a film where actions speak louder than words. There is very little by way of dialogue in the film. Most of what happens speaks for itself. In fact, if anything, I think the film could do with potentially less talking. One of the film’s rare missteps is the eye-rolling material that Mark Rylance is saddled with. Rylance plays Mr Dawson, a civilian sailor who is heading out to save as many soldiers as he can. Almost all of his dialogue is heavy handed exposition, clunkily describing exactly what the audience can see for themselves.
That minor gripe aside, the rest of the film commands your attention and is a finely honed production where everyone hits their mark just so. There’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Brannagh), the desperate pier-master overseeing the evacuation of the Allies. Aneurin Barnard has one of the most interesting roles as Gibson, a French soldier masquerading as an Englishman, hoping to make his escape. Then there’s Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) a rescued soldier suffering PTSD which leads to a moment of tragedy shortly after he is plucked from the ocean. And who can forget Farrier, the courageous spit fighter pilot, picking off Nazis from the skies. The role of Farrier, who’s face is mostly obscured by his headgear, is expertly brought to life by Tom Hardy’s Magnificent Eyebrows.
We learn precious little about each of these characters. Just little facets of their fortitude and gumption as they face one life threatening confrontation after another. Despite the film’s broad scope and cast of thousands, in many ways Dunkirk is also a very stripped back and lean film. Unusually for a big budget WWII production, the film clocks in at a snappy 106 minute running time. It has the pace and action beats of a thriller. The film doesn’t ever really feel grandoise. The few wide shots we see of the soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water don’t feel momentous. The film sets its lens much closer to the action and follows its cast from moment to moment.
Dunkirk works so well because it is a masterclass in storytelling. Like the pocket watch that inspired the soundtrack, the film is a triumph of craftsmanship. Each shot, each edit and each action ratchets up the tension to unbearable heights. The highlight for me was a sequence intercutting a pilot slowing drowning in his downed spitfighter and a French soldier’s deception slowly being uncovered by the English troops. That passage of the film had me completely enthralled and holding my breath for the better part of a minute.
What is there left to say about Christopher Nolan and his formidable body of work? Fourteen features spanning two decades of film making and the Englishman is still showing the same passion, energy and creative flair that he did when he made Memento all the way back in 2000. Impressively, he shows no signs of peaking just yet with Dunkirk having certain qualities that I haven’t seen before in any of his previous films. Dunkirk is one of the year’s best and deserves every bit of success that comes its way.