Okay, so you all know the score with Dunkirk already. Christopher Nolan’s mega-budget World War Two film, filmed largely down the road from me in Swanage. Nolan thanked the studio recently for “giving this British film an American budget” and, my word, does it show.
Beginning with a credit-free ‘cold-open’, Nolan sets his stall immediately out with his usual cinematic tropes. A lack of back-story to treat the audience with the intelligence it deserves, CG-free production design and the neat little touches which subtly imply the desperation and the weariness of the situtation at hand – stealing cigarette stubs from an ashtray, using floating propaganda leaflets as toilet paper – before we are launched head-first into the maelstrom within less than five minutes.
The near-worldless first twenty minutes is a stunning narrative technique that reminded me much of Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ (my favourite Western of all time) and Nolan seems to lovingly filch this technique here, but hey, if you are going to steal, steal from the best, as they say. Plus, the message here is clear: we don’t need to be spoon-fed expositionary dialogue to know that horrors the previous six years have brought upon the world.
The scene is immediately set for a three act story (or Triptych) involving the evacuation and rescue efforts from the titular beach from land, sea and air. Close attention is required as there are three separate time-lines going on here and it is Nolan’s narrative master-stroke to intertwine each of these at various points of the film so you really didn’t know when one or more plotlines were going to converge or how, but stick with it, they do. Of course to say anything would be to spoil the surprises for those yet to see it.
The next thing to mention is frequent Nolan collaborator Hoyt Van Hoytema’s mesmering cinematography, which makes the beach a major character in itself: cruel, bleak and unforgiving during the hopeless hours (it actully looks like an alien wasteland at certain times) and then beautiful, friendly, sunny and welcoming by the time the final credits roll. Cameras strapped to Spitfire wings during aerial dogfights, Navy vessels listing underwater, the camera tracking an injured stretcher across the huge beach, the camera is there to capture it all in a sensitively bloodless way (we all know of the horrors the war presented, why show it again in graphic detail?) and the film is simply beautiful to look at.
The script is as sparse, minimalist and rightfully humourless as the exhausting and bleak situation requires and the stories are progressed along in brisk and perfunctory manners.
Hans Zimmer’s minimalist music is, of course, fabulous and is also a major character of the film. The relentlessness of the ticking stop-watch and the searing intensity of the music really does ramp up the tension to almost agonising extents (think of the final twenty minutes of The Dark Knight), far more-so than any blustering John William’s score would.
Special mention must go to the Sound Design and Sound Editing team for creating such a realistically ear-splitting and thunderous noise, which really did have me flinching and wincing in my seat at the sheer volume of it. They definitely deserve the Oscar next March for creating such an authentic audio-assault on the senses.
The acting is all uniformly excellent (even ‘He’ is perfectly decent in his debut film role) and the storylines are just so totally unpredictable, the relentless tension compounds to an almost unberable extent as nearly eight storylines of varying degrees of direness converge within the last twenty minutes.
Special mention also to the Production Design team for recreating so faithfully the Spit-Fires, Mescherschmitts, tanks, Frigates and Destroyers in typically-stunning CG-free Nolan form.
A film that definitely deserves to be shown on the biggest screens imaginable to school classes around the world forever-more, to highlight just what mankind can achieve when faced with with such seemingly insurmountable hopelessness. Nolan has done the very difficult subject very proud indeed.
A sensitively-handled and unbelievably tense survival story that does the real-life heroes proud and satisfies mainstream cinema audiences as well, which in itself is a terrific achievement.
If there isn’t water in your eye and a lump in your throat at the sight of a Spitfire soaring high over the shimmering beach at the end, well, then there must be something a bit wrong with you, to be frank.
Simply put, closely pipping Elem Klimov’s deeply harrowing 1985 Russian World War Two film ‘Come And See’ to the top spot, Dunkirk is the greatest war film I have ever seen in my life.