A review of the new Christopher Nolan film “Dunkirk”

The last time we saw Dunkirk in a film was in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” which featured a staggering five and a half minute Steadicam shot of a hell on earth beach scene. Now, thanks to the supreme talents of British director Christopher Nolan, we have an entire film devoted to the miracle of May/June 1940 that enabled some 340,000 British and French soldiers to be rescued by the British Navy and a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 small boats.

Nolan is what film studies call an auteur, someone who stamps an individual style on every work that he produces. In fact, Nolan is a most unusual auteur because his films are commercially successful (most notably his “Dark Knight” trilogy). But he often makes his viewers work hard because frequently he likes to use a non-linear narrative (most dramatically in “Memento”, “Inception” and “Interstellar”).

In this sense, “Dunkirk” – which he wrote, produced and directed – is classic Nolan in that there are three storylines: one largely set on land and covering a week, another located mainly at sea and occupying one day, and the third taking place in the air and filling just one hour. The three narratives intersect and finally converge temporally at the end of the film. It is as well for the viewer to know this before seeing the work for the first time and it means that a complete understanding of the timelines probably requires more than one viewing.

The unusual narrative structure is not the only distinctive feature of “Dunkirk”. Visually and aurally it is a striking film and I viewed it in IMAX which was a stunning experience. Whether it is the vast expanse of the beach with thousands of soldiers lined up or the claustrophic bowels of a crammed ship or a close-up of a pilot in his Spitfire fighter aircraft, whether it the whine of bullets or the explosion of bombs or the howl of a Stuka dive-bomber, this is a work which is almost overwhelming. When one factors in the astonishing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, the movie becomes a heart-pounding experience.

There is a roster of familar talented actors – notably – Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy (although we barely see his face) – but Nolan deliberately cast young, newcomers to the screen in many of the soldier roles. In many ways, this is a minimalist movie: a simple plot (if complicated timelines), comparatively little dialogue, very few women characters, no German faces at all – just an unrelenting focus from the opening scene to the closing minutes on that strip of sand and the tens of thousands on it. The end sequences teeter on the edge of jingoism, but overall this is a masterclass in moviemaking.


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