DIR/WRI: Christopher Nolan • PRO: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas • DOP: Hoyte Van Hoytema • ED: Lee Smith • DES: Nathan Crowley • MUS: Hans Zimmer • CAST: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh
A new Christopher Nolan film creates a fanfare from cinema audiences unlike any other contemporary filmmaker. His films whet the appetites of cinemagoers as he continues to redefine Hollywood large-scale budget films with his own Nolan-esque twist and approach. It’s been three long years since Interstellar divided opinion, but this year finally sees Nolan return with Dunkirk, a film based on the true historical events of Operation Dynamo during World War II.
Nolan’s Dunkirk explores the evacuation of Dunkirk beach in 1940 with perspectives from characters on land, sea, and in the air. Amongst the film’s ensemble cast, three protagonists of sorts become the narrative focus within these three perspectives. On land, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is amongst the 400,000 soldiers confined to Dunkirk beach by the enemy forces and has to find a way to leave the beach for home, which the soldiers can “practically see”. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) are sailing towards Dunkirk to rescue soldiers on their civilian boat. In the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) is one of three Spitfire pilots tasked with preventing enemy forces from attacking those fleeing Dunkirk. These three perspectives are all united with the same purpose – survival.
Firstly, Dunkirk’s cinematography alone is stellar. With his second collaboration with Hoyte van Hoytema and filming on IMAX 65mm, Christopher Nolan has created a film full of rich textures and colour hues that looks concurrently old and modern. There is an immersive experience on-screen that is created without the use of 3D technology, and especially in the aircraft scenes, Dunkirk offers a vicarious perspective of the characters’ world within the film. Nolan’s previous collaboration with van Hoytema in 2014’s Interstellar featured some fantastically-gritty landscapes for the new planets in the film – some of which were shot in Iceland – to great effect on IMAX 65mm. Here, it’s used to a similarly impressive effect, with each sequence possessing its own atmosphere that contributes to the anxious unease you feel watching events unfold. The preference towards practical visual effects by the director is then rewarded in the film as it creates a strong sense of verisimilitude.
The three perspectives within Dunkirk allows each ensemble cast member to contribute to the unease of this fight for survival. Fionn Whitehead is captivating as Tommy and he delivers a believable and nuanced performance for an actor in his debut feature film. There is innocence within his performance that is striking when you consider the naivety of these young men, or even boys, fighting in the war. You can share in his fear and you’re willing him on to return home. With this character alone, Nolan has the audience onboard with the story and he continues to establish the importance of these characters fighting their battle for survival. Tom Hardy is as reliable as ever for Nolan – even donning a similar Bane sheepskin coat – as Spitfire pilot Harrier; you can see the experience of life during wartime in the eyes of Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson; Harry Styles’ Alex exhibits the frustration of the many setbacks before any possible chance of freedom. The minimal dialogue within Nolan’s self-penned script permits these characters to focus on their character’s respective survival throughout the film’s running time – which at 107 minutes is short for a Christopher Nolan film. Words become less significant in their escape.
Dunkirk becomes much more than a war film. It can be classified within the war genre but it’s more of a personal affair rather than a two-hour shootout on battlefields The ensemble cast are used to personify the individual and collective need to survive. These soldiers are used to capture one facet of the hardship of war without simply fighting the enemy. Nolan also returns to some of his thematic staples with the film delving into conflicting human morality. Those on Mr. Dawson’s boat face the dilemma of turning back to England or committing to aiding those in Dunkirk; the rescued soldiers are confused whether to consider themselves cowards for fleeing the war zone or heroes for returning home to contribute to the war again. A Nolan non-linear narrative subtly returns to intersect between events in the plot’s triptych – although it’s used less compared to Memento or Inception. Hans Zimmer also contributes with an eerie score that sampled Nolan’s own stopwatch that creates further tension for both the soldiers and the cinemagoer.
This film could not have been made by any other director than Christopher Nolan. A new Nolan release becomes event cinema – it has to be seen. Here, he uses a significant event in recent history and respects the event in his own cinematic adaptation which increases awareness of the importance of this evacuation for World War II’s outcome. For a war film, Dunkirk is less action-centric and offers an element of humanity with soldiers simply attempting to survive from a war that they did not initiate. Dunkirk then becomes a tense viewing experience and you will become anxious in seeing these characters fight to survive. It’s an experience that has to be seen on the biggest screen and in 70mm, as Nolan himself insists upon, as he continues to utilise the possibilities of the film medium itself to imagine and create a film of Dunkirk’s technical standard.
He places you on the beach waiting to board a naval ship; he places you on the compact civilian boats on the choppy waters; he places you in the cockpit of a Spitfire as you attack the enemy. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan provides a cinematic involvement that only his films can offer.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Dunkirk is released 21st July 2017