Insistent, cacophonous and unrelenting, the pre-release clamour around “Dunkirk” has been enough to give even the most hype-hardened cinema veteran combat fatigue. When it comes to the list of prerequisites, conditions and riders demanded before you even have the temerity to consider buying a ticket, never before in the field of cinema history has so much been demanded from so many for the satisfaction of so few.
Late May 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force and the remains of the French First Army, Belgian and Dutch forces find themselves forced onto the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by the German army. All in all nearly half a million soldiers are trapped on the shore. What followed was an unprecedented, chaotic and desperate operation to evacuate the beaches and bring the soldiers home.
Lean, kinetic and ruthlessly focussed, with “Dunkirk”, Christopher Nolan forges his sharpest cinematic weapon yet. Honed to a bleeding edge, Nolan takes the heady, sea-foamed cocktail of desperation, courage, cowardice, duty and sacrifice and blends it with an intricate non-linear narrative flourish to deliver an absorbing and impressionistic movie watching experience. Deceptively sparse, much of the stories of the film are told with minimal dialogue or exposition, relying on the performances of the cast to envelop the viewer in the trauma and turmoil of the action on the beaches, the unforgiving seas and the skies above.
Nolan brings back some of his familiar favourites in the form of Cilian Murphy, Tom Hardy and a sneaky cameo from, of course, Michael Caine but it’s in his casting of relative unknowns that the film draws its verisimilitude from. Fionn Whitehead is sensational as Tommy, the first person the film introduces us to and our ongoing audience touchstone, even once he joins up with a gang of soldiers – including Harry Styles – who have only one direction on their mind: home. Styles delivers a credibly understated and natural performance, allowing nothing of the furore around his casting and celebrity status to bleed through. Whatever his musical career may hold, “Dunkirk” suggests he has a bright acting future ahead of him. It’s Mark Rylance, though, who brings a real sense of humanity and emotional tenderness often lacking in Nolan’s preferred repertory company.
As you’d expect from such a surgically precise filmmaker, “Dunkirk” is a magnificent, technically dazzling achievement and every single frame could be identified in a line-up as a Nolan shot, suffused in his favoured café-au-lait palette and precise, exquisite framing (whichever ratio you watch it in). But in amongst all the self-defeating sanctimony around the visual imperatives, this film has been saddled with, it is not in the imagery that the film’s power lies. “Dunkirk” is as much Hans Zimmer’s triumph as it is Nolan’s and without his brooding, malevolently urgent score and the fantastic sound design, this wouldn’t be half the pulse-pounding, nerve-shredding experience it is. If you’re going to obsess over one aspect of how best to watch the movie, go for the venue with the very best sound quality, not necessarily the biggest screen.
Stunningly realised, brutally immersive and worthy of most of the praise it’s received, “Dunkirk” sees Nolan pare down some of the indulgences which have marred his recent outings in favour of a muscularly sensory storytelling approach. One to be savoured in the cinema, whichever one you choose.