Dunkirk – Review

Christopher Nolan delivers yet another brilliant film in his already incredible filmography

Directed and Written by: Christopher Nolan


Straight from the opening scene, Dunkirk puts us in a state of tension and jeopardy as German sharpshooters target a young group of British soldiers including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). We don’t get a friendly opening where we’re introduced to our protagonists. From second one we are there in the battle and it increases the suspense by 100.

A retelling of a small yet pivotal moment during World War II seemed like an odd choice for maestro Christopher Nolan, who has built his brand on twisty thrillers (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige), superhero epics (The Dark Knight Trilogy) and sci-fi mindbenders (Inception, Interstellar). But when watching Dunkirk, this really does have Nolan’s DNA all over it. That being epic scale, relying on practical effects and a non-linear script which when adjusted to it, is incredibly effective and helps you be drawn into each perspective that Nolan puts us into during the Dunkirk evacuation.

This film controversially has a PG-13 rating instead of an R, which got many asking how the bloody impact of war could be portrayed effectively. However, instead of gory brutality, Nolan treats Dunkirk as much as a suspense thriller as he does a war film, which works spectacularly well. As an audience we are waiting anxiously for the next round of enemy gunfire, and we’re put into the tight claustrophobic spaces in which our protagonists inhibit.

The whole film feels yet very intimate yet incredibly epic, a balance which is so difficult to strike. It’s no surprise that Nolan himself describes the film as an intimate epic.

The three perspectives that Nolan shows us is of the land which is actually called is called “the mole,” A mole is a stone passageway with a pier, this was where long lines of troops waited to be evacuated onto boats. We also follow the journey of sailor Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) who travel out on their boat to help with the evacuation of the soldiers. This element is called “the sea”. The third perspective we follow is “the air” which follows two fighter pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) Collins (Jack Lowden). These sequences were the most tense of all in the film.

Nolan notably filmed most of Dunkirk with IMAX cameras and after experiencing it in IMAX, it’s certainly the only way to really experience the film. Nolan called the IMAX experience like “virtual reality without the goggles” and the rings completely true as in the dogfight sequences you truly feel like you’re there in the cockpit. It’s an experience where you’re nervous about what will happen next yet it’s impossible to look away. Another subtle thing I noticed in the opening scene is that the gunfire didn’t sound like “movie gunfire”. Practicality is something that Nolan prides himself on. When he’s used CGI in his previous films, most notably Inception and Interstellar, it’s been seamless, but here, it feels like a fully real, tangible experience. Nolan made the effort to use real WWII spitfire planes and boats. All of the aerial sequences have no CGI whatsoever and the practicality adds to the stark realism of the film. There’s a scene where a boat gets hit by a torpedo and Nolan used a practical rig instead of shaking up the camera, this allowed the actors to have a genuine reaction to the boat getting hit. It only adds to the tension and brutality.

A part of the film which gained attention was the fact that it was only 106 minutes long and features very little dialogue. It’s Nolan’s shortest feature film to date (excluding his 1998 debut Following, which was made on a meagre budget of $6000 and was only 70 minutes long). The screenplay came in at only 76 pages. A problem people may have with Dunkirk is the lack of characterisation. We don’t know any of the backstory to the characters, we are just put straight into the battle. Our connection with the characters is due to the fact that they’re put into this harrowing situation. Characters don’t talk about their home life to one another and when thinking about it, in a situation where there is impending death every minute, where these men are in constant peril, would’ve they had time to discuss this? Probably not. The film is not about the characters, it’s about the event itself. It asks you to question what you’d do in a series of relentless, deadly situations and whilst doing this highlighting efforts of bravery and sacrifice.

Dunkirk is a true ensemble piece but all performances are great, yes, even Harry Styles as a fellow soldier, Alex, who bonds with Tommy. Tom Hardy has a hard job having to portray a lot of emotion through his eyes much like his performance as Bane, as his face is mostly covered by a mask throughout the film, but we connect with his character through his actions. We connect with Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson due to his patriotism and want to help. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead is the audience character and he gets very little dialogue in a role where we are put in his shoes as an innocent young man being put into a horrific scenario.

The incredible tension is emphasised by Hans Zimmer’s appropriately subtle yet epic score which is driven by a ticking clock.

Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema returns and provides some truly stunning shots which feel grand in scope one minute and claustrophobic the next. The shots he’s able to get from the point of view on the spitfires are stunning.

It felt like before Dunkirk, the only thing Nolan hadn’t covered was a real-life event. He’s done it now and delivered yet again. He’s added another string to his bow. He creates something completely new personally for him and yet still provides a stunning spectacle that we expect from Nolan. He locks you in first frame and doesn’t let up until the final frame. Experience it in IMAX because you’ll feel the brutality but you’ll never want to look away. Christopher Nolan really is a master.

Dunkirk – IWM Score: 96%

~ Industrial Write & Magic


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