Christopher Nolan returns to our screens with his new film, Dunkirk. A fictional story in three parts all set around the British evacuation of Dunkirk, France in 1940.
As I said above, there are three perspectives to this film and three time periods. However, they’re not played one after another and all interconnect with each other.
The Land: These are the soldiers on the beach waiting to be evacuated, their story is set over a week.
The Sea: A man and his two sons have their boat drafted by the military and set off to cross the English Channel. Their story is set over one day.
The Air: Three Spitfire pilots are on their way to provide air support for the men on the beach. Their story is set over one hour.
When I find myself talking about Dunkirk, I gravitate to The Land section as I (and a lot of people) can understand the utter confusion and fear these men would have felt just waiting for almost certain death. If this film was purely this section it would be pretty good but with the addition of Sea and Air it’s massively elevated. Dunkirk is Nolans shortest mainstream film and the vast majority of that time is dedicated to spectacle.
Cast and Performances
This is an ensemble film so there are no real standouts here. Some of Nolan’s regular collaborators make appearances, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, and the inclusion of the great Mark Rylance is a solid addition to any film. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead receives top billing and is the main focus of the Land section, playing off him is popstar Harry Styles.
A lot was said of this casting choice before the film as Nolan is not one to stunt cast. This is not the first time he’s employed a musician before as David Bowie was a key character in his 2006 film The Prestige. His first appearance on screen was slightly jarring but it’s instantly recognizable that he and everyone around him is taking this incredibly seriously. There was no ‘tongue in cheek’ moments like Ed Sheerans recent appearance in Game of Thrones.
Everyone plays their part, nothing more and nothing less. In a film like this that’s all you need. Unlike ‘Saving Private Ryan’ the main “star” of this film is Dunkirk and War as a concept.
Here is where the film becomes something other than a normal war film and it’s not because of what you see, it’s down to what you hear. The sound design is brutal and made me sick, as it WAS War. The 30 people in the sound department deserve FAR more recognition than they might get and it’s not even a question come awards season. The first thing you hear is a gun shot that rings out and informs you that this is not a film to get comfortable for. The editing, sound editing and sound design will not let you sit still for 106 minutes. I don’t say the following word a lot about films but this aspect of Dunkirk was perfect.
I was not blown away by the music. I love Hans Zimmer and I love the work that he and Nolan have done together over the last 12 years but this score didn’t work for me, at least in the cinema. I’m sure I’ll listen to the score in the coming weeks and will find parts that I do like but right now I couldn’t hum any melody to you. Apart from the Elgar which he has re-imagined. At certain sections I thought he had stolen parts of Jonny Greenwood’s score from There Will Be Blood, I realized quickly it was just a very similar arrangement of instruments and voicings.
How do you sit down and watch Dunkirk? Before you say *ahem* “you just sit down and watch Dunkirk”. In all seriousness, Nolan’s love of the IMAX format is great if you can see the film on a screen that big and clear with the appropriate sound system (which I did). I just wonder if the impact of around 70% of the film will be lost on people who go to their local indie screen, or even a normal chain cinema that doesn’t have IMAX or a projector that can show 70mm prints.
My advice is as follows. If you CAN see it in IMAX then you SHOULD see it in IMAX, 70mm is a great alternative but weirdly it’s less accessible and often costs more.
Of course this is fantastic. Somebody of Christopher Nolan’s stature doesn’t make a WW2 film and allow a shoddy piece of work. I don’t, personally, agree with the amount of praise this film has got and I do think people’s opinions will change over the coming months.
That being said it’s undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and one of the best, if not the best, war films of the 21st century.