What truly defines and endures about Christopher Nolan’s take on the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation is its claustrophobic intensity, the way you’re stuck right in the middle of the chaos as the superstar director attempts to convey just a fraction of what it must have felt like to be stranded on that iconic beach surrounded by the enemy. From the first few frames, it’s clear that this is both unlike anything Nolan has ever made before and very different from the conventional war film. Instead, it’s an expressionist, experimental, almost arthouse film, there’s little dialogue and the style often feels like docudrama, the camera an incidental presence rather than the controlling guiding hand.
For Nolan, this represents a startling change in approach, shorn of his predilection for the supernatural, the cosmic and the superheroic, Dunkirk is far more straightforward, there’s little CGI and the whole thing feels much closer to that old-school ideal of filmmaking where you stage a scene, shoot it and that’s pretty much what ends up on screen. Most notably, you never get the sense that Nolan is trying to trick or play with his audience in Dunkirk, a tendency which has been present to varying degrees in pretty much all of his previous films.
This stripped-down approach allows Nolan to display just what an excellent filmmaker he is, for two hours, he handles the action superbly, cranking up the tension between brief moments of relative calm. It’s paced almost like a horror film, with the dread coming not from some malevolent supernatural entity but from the situations, from the feeling of being attacked by an unseen enemy, from being miles above the earth in a plane with a broken fuel gauge, from being trapped in the bowels of a warship rapidly filling up with water, and from being stuck on a beach that’s being strafed by the Luftwaffe. In this context, bullets zipping through the air become jump scares, the sound echoing around the cinema and shattering Dunkirk’s quieter moments. Opinion may be divided on the fact that Dunkirk is, for the most part, an oddly bloodless war film, people die obviously, but the camera doesn’t linger and Nolan deliberately avoids the blood and guts that often characterise the genre. Instead, the terror all comes from the psychology, that almost ever-present feeling of being trapped, of not knowing what comes next, of not knowing when it will all be over.
There’s also a stark, simplistic beauty to the cinematography, with Nolan reuniting with his Interstellar Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema to produce a visual style characterised by naturalistic restraint and clear, iconic images. In practice, this means a combination of wide shots that show the scale of the battle, the crisis, the situation or whatever else you want to call Dunkirk, and closeups that, more eloquently than countless lines of dialogue, show the terror on the faces of the young boys stranded miles from home and fearful, in many cases certain, that they will die today.
It’s a measure of the esteem in which Nolan is held that, for this unusual take on what has become one of the defining stories of British patriotism, he’s assembled a collection of British acting royalty. There’s Tom Hardy stoically fighting the Luftwaffe miles above that infamous beach, Kenneth Branagh trying to maintain control of the situation on the ground and gazing grimly out to sea, and Mark Rylance embodying English reserve as the the captain of one of the countless pleasure boats that were hastily enlisted to bring the boys back home. Stretching the geographic boundaries somewhat lets us also include Cillian Murphy, who’s rescued by Rylance on the way to Dunkirk and whose joy quickly turns to dismay when he realises he’s headed back to the godforsaken beach he just escaped from. His subsequent actions both illustrate the effect that Dunkirk had on the men stuck there and provide an interior drama that counterpoints the mass scale life-and-death struggle that is the focus of much of the film.
The fact that such an A-list cast signed up is all the more remarkable given the fact that Nolan doesn’t give most of them very much to do. Hardy for example gets maybe 10 lines in the whole thing and, in keeping with the fact that this is a very different war movie, there are no backstories recounted in the lulls between battles, no talk about sweethearts left behind or how this all makes a change from some previous existence of pastoral idylls or urban hedonism. No one chats in Dunkirk, when they speak, it’s because they need to and they’re simply too wet, tired and frightened for idle conversation.
Given the attention that Harry Styles’ brief role in the film has generated, it would seem churlish not to mention him. The best thing to be said about his performance is that it doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb, this is thankfully a million miles away from David Beckham in King Arthur. Quite why he’s there though is a mystery, Nolan swears he didn’t realise how famous he was when he cast him and that seems easy to believe; it’s hard to picture the 47-year-old director bopping along to the latest hit from One Direction. Equally, it seems hard to imagine that this is an attempt to attract the teenage girl fanbase, unless you’re really looking, you probably won’t even notice that Styles is in Dunkirk. By all accounts, the film was a tough shoot and therefore it’s probably a little too early to call Styles a good actor, it’s not exactly difficult to look tired and miserable if you’ve been stuck in cold water for hours.
By the end, Dunkirk, for so long the epitome of furious intensity, lets up a little and indulges in some flag-waving British patriotism, the words of Churchill’s famous speech echoing as those who made it back receive a hero’s welcome. At this point though it feels like a blessed relief rather than a betrayal of his principles, a reward for the audience after two hours of being stuck in various states of chaos and peril.
Overall, Dunkirk is a superb film, the work of an experienced director who knows exactly what he’s doing and who uses his skills to create something that’s far more than a throwaway piece of entertainment. It’s a serious attempt to avoid cinematic cliché and convey the reality of what it must have been like to be stuck on a French beach surrounded by the enemy and not knowing if you’ll ever get home, or who’ll be the next to die. To this end, Dunkirk is defined by its intensity, which gives it a raw authenticity rarely seen in modern cinema and which makes it one of the year’s most remarkable films.