It seems that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception) is continuing to prove himself as one of the most important directors Hollywood has seen this century. His films cultivate huge audiences, win over critics, and most importantly, they tend to be consistently excellent. His latest offering, Dunkirk, is yet another artistically successful blockbuster – one more box ticked in a long line of genres that Nolan continues to tackle with great eminence.
The Germans have successfully pushed allied forces to the sea. British, French and Belgian soldiers are desperately attempting to evacuate, trapped on the beach of Dunkirk. They are being picked off by aerial enemies who have them completely surrounded. But, in what has become one of the most renowned events in world history, there is hope. A hope and determination to survive that is masterfully captured with understated precision by Nolan.
The unconventional non-linear narrative structure means that it does take some time to fully realise how well paced and executed Dunkirk is. The meticulous growth of the story is creeping; the tragedies and atrocities depicted possess such abruptness and promptitude, despite the apocalyptic soundtrack that accompanies many of the films images. Hans Zimmer’s score is stunning; the music always feels like the perfect accompaniment to the visuals, and provides a real sense of urgency in scenes of peril and struggle for survival. These arresting sequences ensure a coordinated narrative which is briskl and calculated, with Nolan knowing exactly when to bestow audiences with development, and when to throttle them into fits of desperation and claustrophobic gasps for breath.
The ensemble of performances is not as important as it has been in the director’s previous work. In this case, there is more focus on displaying and detailing the events of what has come to be known as the miracle of Dunkirk. That said, there are some stand-out performances which really draw you into their characters.
Despite the controversy of One Direction star Harry Styles starring in the film, Styles proves his weight as a performer, and provides what may possibly be the most hypnotic character of the film. A degree of charisma and boyish charm is employed to father a realistic, relatable and brave character – one you dare to follow no matter the uncertainty of his fate. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) can be understood as the film’s protagonist, and while ably executed, Styles steals the scenes the pair inhabit.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Dunkirk is just how unconventional it is. In comparison to his other films, it is understated, showing that Nolan can bring a remarkable realism to his projects. There is minimal dialogue and the films exposition in particular feels as though something American director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) may have conjured if challenged to make a film on the subject. The camerawork in certain scenes is very imaginative, and the use of canted and experimental camera angles may have audiences dipping and diving in their seats along with the characters on screen.
Unexpectedly, the film follows a non-linear approach to story-telling, with the example of fighter pilots pursuing aerial enemies over the course of an hour. These brief sequences withstand the entire duration of the film, despite the film being set over a much longer period. It is interesting to see different accounts and perspectives of what is going on, but Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) recurring sequences can become disengaging due to the frequency of their interventions. Although the character’s role is critical, it would have helped if the aerial sequences were even briefer. The truly spectacular scenes take place on land and sea.
Dunkirk is one of the finest war movies in a very long time, and although not without its problems, Nolan achieves so much more than many director’s could hope for in tackling such grand subject matter. It is big, bold, and mesmeric; it simply demands to be seen on the big screen.
Dunkirk opens at Phoenix today.