May 26, 1940. Dunkirk, France. Following the colossal military disaster of The Battle of France British and Allied forces are now surrounded by the Germans and face death on all sides. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide they await their chance to escape.
So sets the scene for Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic Dunkirk, which blows all expectations away. Whether it be cinematography, sound, music, costuming, set design or the performances of a diverse group of actors, Nolan transports audiences to one of the most dangerous and heroic moments of the 20th century.
Basing his narrative on a triptych, Nolan follows the events of Operation Dynamo from land, sea and air.
While his approach to telling his story keeps with his usual grandiose style of filmmaking, he forgoes the normal three-act structure and instead lets the film unfold in real-time.
This almost documentary style really amps up the tension and suspense of the narrative where every decision has a consequence. I found that my mind would begin to spin analytically as I was trying to decipher where each individual decision would take the characters and just what kind of outcome would arrive for each of them.
I stress that if you are going to watch Dunkirk then make sure that you watch it in IMAX. This is a necessity as 75% of the film was shot with IMAX cameras and the resulting footage is truly beautiful and immersive. The scope and size of the IMAX footage hits you full on, and you can’t help but feel sucked into the screen. Its scope is so grand that you truly feel like you could be on the wing of an actual Supermarine Spitfire as it climbs through the white of the clouds before diving down to attack a Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Praise must be lauded on cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who breaks away from the standard profile and stationary shots of regular IMAX filmmaking and does something totally unique. If you’ve ever seen an IMAX camera you know that this is quite a task, but somehow Hoytema and his team pulled it off. I have no doubt that the limits of these cameras were truly pushed on Dunkirk, and the resulting footage is spectacular.
Also, prepare for things to get loud. Really loud. Especially in IMAX, because editor Lee Smith and his specialised audio mixing team crank up the volume. From the crashing of the waves on The Mole to the roar of a Spitfire engine to the scattered clang and crack of enemy bullet fire, everything individual sound explodes with power. Used collectively they add to the tension and suspense of the film and bring to life the harrowing atmosphere of the Dunkirk landscape.
Hans Zimmer’s supercharged score also plays an enormous role in Dunkirk’s success. While I can’t comment on the film’s dialogue without going into spoiler territory, Zimmer’s synthesised and mechanical score becomes, in a way, the film’s largest piece of dialogue. The music not only intertwines with the underlying themes of the movie but also speaks to the images that are unfolding on screen. I truly felt that Zimmer’s score was talking to me, for example in a harrowing sinking scene the brutal riffs of the audio add to the horror and the desperate fight to escape the hull of the wreckage before it sinks.
I was also particularly impressed in Nolan’s adherence to history and his mission to not ‘Hollywood’ the film by going for a cast of high-end stars who physically do not look the part. Instead, the director cast a group of young, unknown actors that helps you to believe that these young soldiers are just normal people caught up in an event bigger than them. This also extends to the wider extra casting, which is again littered with teenage boys who appear overwhelmed at what faces them and keeps with real historical precedent.
While I can’t discuss the cast without leading to spoilers I will say that I was very impressed by Harry Styles performance, and I hope he continues to pursue more film projects because he sure has the talent.
But the question remains is Dunkirk Christopher Nolan’s literal masterpiece?
With each new project, the revered British filmmaker has continued to push the limits of what the cinematic experience can be. I myself have viewed all of his films on multiple occasions, and have spent hours letting their narratives and images wash over me. But after seeing Dunkirk I can say that without a doubt it is truly his masterpiece. Both intimate and epic at the same time, Dunkirk brings together all aspects of the filmmaking process in flawless perfection to tell its harrowing and heroic story. Not a frame, note, or mannerism is wasted up on screen and as the film comes to a close you will be left saying wow.
Image: Roadshow Films