Watching Christopher Nolan’s cinematic re-telling of Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of trapped Allied soldiers from the beach and harbour at Dunkirk in 1940, was one of the most memorable cinematic moments of my adult life. It’s a unique sensory experience that damn-near overwhelms the viewer on both the visual and aural scale from the first minute. Low on dialogue and heavy on exquisitely-shot action, Dunkirk is so viscerally mesmerising, that it feels almost like it’s not even a movie, but more an interactive reconstruction of the events, or a painstakingly realised virtual reality experience. It might not be without flaws for some, but Nolan’s vision, crafted superbly along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and composer Hans Zimmer, is nerve-shredding, rousing and one of the most instantly striking things I’ve watched on a big screen.
The drama, for the movie is more a drama than a story, revolves around three narratives that cut back and forth and loosely link with each other. On the beach, soldiers played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles attempt to escape the oncoming enemy; at sea, civilian sailor Mark Rylance pilots his small boat across the English Channel to rescue the surrounded British Army; while in the air, Royal Air Force pilots Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden patrol the skies in their Spitfires.
A five-minute IMAX preview of Dunkirk was screened before Rogue One last year and, so tense and memorable was it, it almost overshadowed the main feature for me. The full movie, clocking in at only 106 minutes, manages to maintain the same level of tension almost throughout its entire running time. From the get-go. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is spectacular, but also spectacularly diverse and involving, flitting between wide expanses of beach and open sea vistas, to cramp ship interiors and foam-covered patches of sand. Zimmer’s previous musical work has often been rousing and triumphant, but sometimes a little loudly obvious for my taste. Here it feels relentless and, incorporating the noise of a ticking clock, relentlessly edgy in a way that makes you feel that some disaster is never more than a few seconds away. The combination is emotionally draining but also incredibly absorbing; watching on an IMAX screen, you feel as if you’ve been pulled into the frame.
There are typically British idiosyncrasies dotted throughout: such as Mark Rylance’s low-key sense of fortitude, or Fionn Whitehead barely escaping the enemy only to immediately, and without fuss, join the back of a long queue.
There is also the bare minimum in terms of plot, and almost no actual characters to speak of. It could be something approaching a “non-movie” or it could be cinema in its purest form. I suspect this may be a stumbling block for some viewers but I left with a feeling that it didn’t particularly matter. Possibly because the story of the Dunkirk evacuation is less a story about individuals and more about a collective experience, not just for the men and women directly involved but as a nation-defining moment. I suspect that the relative lack of “traditional” elements mattered little to me also because Dunkirk is so unbelievably exciting, rabidly engrossing and totally unlike anything I’ve seen.
War, Drama | UK, 2017 | 12A | 21st July 2017 (UK) | Warner Bros Pictures | Dir.Christopher Nolan | Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead