review by paul dunne
Approaching Dunkirk I was quite hesitant, I would argue this is the biggest risk of Christopher Nolan’s career. I was anxious of his penchant for playing with genre, introducing fresh ideas and unique takes into Hollywood’s established and steady picture factory. Will Nolan’s style work? Will live up to his reputation? What can he do with a war film? In short: yes, yes, and, a lot.
The score is the real star of the show. Nolan’s reputation for outstanding sound design reappears as he collaborates once again with Hans Zimmer. A far cry from the meme-worthy ‘bwamps’ of Inception and Interstellar, the sound takes centre stage to drive Dunkirk. The opening sequence is notably devoid of dialogue and repeatedly cuts to an intertitle, reminiscent of a bygone practice. Nolan sets the scene as quickly and plainly as he can. There is an ominous ticking that matches the pace of the action, beginning slow to then swell amidst gunfire and explosions. This ticking sets the tense atmosphere of each scene as it carries through until the film’s powerful ending.
Masterful camera work, particularly extraordinary underwater and in-air dogfighting shots, situate us amongst the catastrophe and in the cockpit. Incredible cinematography and sound ensure we share the fears, pains, hopes and triumphs of the soldiers and civilians. The action scenes make clever use of perspective, switching between the characters at will to provide multiple angles. The ticking recurs, carrying the tension through the cuts.
Each performance is played perfectly, there is a grounded seriousness present in each scene. The threat of death haunts every moment but never overpowers other brief respites of triumph. For the most part Nolan avoids grandiose heroics and soldiers spitting expletives, choosing to shine a light on the uglier, gritty, psychological sides of war. The initial shock of Harry Styles’ appearance quickly wears off as he blends in as just another soldier among the many. That is until an intense scene later in the film, within which he holds his own, accurately portraying the darker side of humanity’s ruthless desire to survive. The rest of the cast are equally superb, aiding our immersion.
My only complaint is the pacing of the final act. As two of the plotlines are coming to a climax, the third plotline lags behind. The switches between the film’s three perspectives are masterfully handled, as mood and tension are held across cuts. There is a noticeable difference in the timelines of the plots. Yet, this is alleviated amazingly, all the beats hit on time and in tune with one another. However, as the film’s climaxes approach, the skewed chronology interferes with the conclusions of the three plots. Two of the plots steer towards their inevitable end, but the synchronised finale stutters as the final plot catches up to pace.
Dunkirk is a film that fits exquisitely into Nolan’s oeuvre. He offers an exciting exposé of all aspects of war, from the grimy conditions and in-fighting amongst foot soldiers to the soaring sensational dogfights. Nothing summarises Dunkirk like its poignant ending, Nolan utilises Churchill’s famous speech in a different way than we expect. He combines the monologue, the culmination of the ticking and the aftermaths of the film’s three perspectives leaving us fascinated and fulfilled.