Christopher Nolan's take on the titular evacuation is incomparably immersive
Although he infused Gotham City with a good deal of grit, Dunkirk represents Christopher Nolan's first foray into true-life territory as he restages the epic evacuation that began in May 1940 and which altered the course of World War II. Framed as a frantic race-against-the-clock, his tenth feature is shorn of plot and characterisation; instead, Nolan launches an all-out assault on the audience's senses, showering us with a triple-threat of peril on land, sea and air.
Simple captions set the scene as 400,000 Allied troops find themselves anxiously waiting to be rescued or picked off by German planes. Scant explanation is required and, moreover, no words can convey the intensity of the men's experience as they tilt their heads ominously to the sky and scramble for non-existent cover. Dialogue is confined to strategy and orders, expressions of frustration and not much else; the less characters speak the better the film plays.
Fleeing enemy fire, British soldier Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is the sole survivor of a group who are gunned down at the outset and he quickly finds himself one of many stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, a mere 26 miles from home. Tommy befriends the suspiciously silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) through their shared instinct for survival. Up above, Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their darnedest to keep the men safe, while the famous 'Dunkirk spirit' is perhaps best embodied by the crew of plucky civilian vessel 'the Moonstone' and its captain Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) – one of many 'little ships' to aid the rescue effort.
The differing timescales of each strand initially confound, but the structure beds in well. The younger cast members acquit themselves admirably, including pop star Harry Styles; and, in its uncomfortable depiction of frightened men looking to save their own skin, this is far from straightforwardly patriotic fare. However, as the naval commander charged with getting the men back, Kenneth Branagh's performance and dialogue feel stiff and on-the-nose in a film that's otherwise remarkably authentic. Indeed, Dunkirk was partially shot on the beaches in question at the same time of year, using a combination of IMAX and 65mm film, creating an enormous canvas.
Though this is a less bloody war film than we've seen before, the typically thunderous Hans Zimmer score conjures a relentless sense of dread unnervingly akin to genuine jeopardy, while ear-splitting, seat-shaking sound design ensures you won't rest comfortably for the duration. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) keeps us at the heart of the action – capturing the sheer scale of the challenge, the narrow-vision and high-stakes of the cockpits, and plunging us into a variety of ordeals, his camera darting, soaring, ducking and diving with a freewheeling flair.
As he delivers non-stop visual audacity, once again Nolan shows himself to be a master of pure cinema. Incomparably immersive, Dunkirk does admirable justice to its story – it's a film that never lets up, never surrenders.
General release from Fri 21 Jul.