I feel bad for Baby Driver. It was my favourite film of 2017 for only two measly weeks.
Dunkirk (2017) is a historical war thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan. It stars an ensemble cast including Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branaugh, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Cillian Murphy and more as the englishmen involved in the historical evacuation of Dunkirk.
The latest film from a director with a stellar track record (ironically aside from his last film Interstellar), Dunkirk represents a different approach for Nolan. Gone is the gritty noir and gripping sci-fi of his earlier works to be replaced with the hard and terrifying realities of war in a film that not only represents his maturation as a director but could also technically be seen as his best movie yet.
Dunkirk personifies exactly what a war movie should be. Brutally uncompromising and unforgiving in the best way possible, Nolan doesn’t glorify war but instead allows the audience to experience the stress and tension felt by the soldiers on that frozen beach. The movie never loses sight of the fact these are real events with legitimate stakes by personifying the characters as normal people struggling against the oppressive weight of the war crashing down on them. From the word go its an almost two hour ticking time bomb of tension and dread that almost never gives you the chance to take a breath.
This is also helped along by an incredibly potent Hans Zimmer score. Now a perpetual collaborator of Nolan, Zimmer is still working in his usual wheelhouse here but there’s enough new to distinguish from his previous work. Clever uses of a ticking background clock, blaring horns and epic strings never let up throughout the entire picture, reinforcing the film’s sense of creeping dread while also ensuring silence is a lost cause. It may arguably be one of Zimmer’s best ever scores and its impossible to imagine the movie without it.
Not only that, but Dunkirk is visually driven in a way none of Nolan’s other films are. While movies like Inception and The Prestige rely heavily on dialogue, Nolan takes the complete opposite approach in Dunkirk by allowing the visuals to speak for themselves. And their voice is deafening. Especially in the format Nolan intended, 70mm in IMAX (which is an absolute must if its available), the film says so much with so little and manages to convey so may interweaving plots and ideas with minimal dialogue. It also helps that the visuals are as staggeringly beautiful. Filled with bleak, desolate imagery that constantly contrast the three battlegrounds of sea, land and air, Dunkirk‘s cinematography is as relentless and powerful as the movie itself.
The ensemble cast is also exceptional, even if they are all insignificant next to the scope of the film. Nolan spends little to no time on characterisation, letting their roles and decisions speak for themselves in a move that keeps the pace up but limits the actor’s ability to capture attention. Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead are allowed to flex their acting muscles on a number of occasions, but others like Hardy and Branaugh fade into the background of the spectacle which isn’t inherently a criticism as it is an observation that Nolan’s direction is the real star of the film. He prefers the characters acting as threads in a much larger tapestry of drama rather than being the centrepiece. And honestly, especially if you’re intent on portraying the events in the most effective way possible, I think that’s the right decision.
The one element that’s going to frustrate some audience members however is that the events on screen can be somewhat convoluted to follow. In classic Nolan fashion he interweaves three different timelines together and its often unclear on the first viewing where those intersections occur. While that does add to the chaos and dread seen on screen, it does mean the film’s going to take several viewings for a proper timeline to present itself. And that’s going to be frustrating for some – even if its barely an inconvenience for more focused viewers.
I don’t want to make too early a call considering how fresh this movie currently is, but Dunkirk may be seen in several years as a modern war classic. This is Nolan at the height of his powers, a master of his craft, vividly depicting a true story with the utmost care. Tense, brutal and unrelenting Dunkirk is not for the faint of heart, but for everyone else this is an experience unlike any other and one that must be seen on the big screen.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Must-see
True Believers (Nolan): Must-see