Christopher Nolan serves up another masterpiece in his scarily authentic capturing of Operation Dynamo.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
It’s May 1940. The Allied forces of Britain, France, Canada and Belgium have been rapidly driven back across Europe by the ruthless German army, and now find themselves encircled on a stretch of beach called Dunkirk. 400,000 soldiers are practically in sight of safety, but, without a fully mobilised navy to carry them across the English Channel, are under threat of persistent bombing and shelling. A flotilla of civilian vessels is commissioned to ferry the soldiers home, but time is running out as the Germans steadily tighten the noose and advance on the beach.
It is this colossal military disaster (Winston Churchill’s words, not mine) that visionary writer/director Christopher Nolan tackles in Dunkirk, his tenth feature film. Using an ensemble cast of British actors (Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance), Nolan plunges the audience into the midst of the action at a moment’s notice. For 106 minutes and across three brilliantly staged threads, Dunkirk is wall-to-wall tension and existential dread that holds you in its firm grasp.
It does this by composing its story across a trio of intersecting and overlapping timelines; one told across a week, the second a single day and the final a mere hour. They all begin at the start and come together briefly at the end, which ensures the film always has something happening and actions in motion.
There are no rousing speeches and no soaring fanfare; Nolan eschews longwinded exposition or lengthy character backstories, with some reflecting the harsh namelessness of wartime by simply being called something like Shivering Soldier, as is case of Murphy’s character.
Remarkably, this is one war film where the enemy is not once glimpsed in the flesh. And yet, despite that, the Germans are a persistent presence – from the first frame through to the very last, they cast a long shadow over everything. Nolan imbues the film with a trickling sense of dread that soaks into every frame, so that even though the enemy is never seen, their aura is never absent.
In a technical sense, Dunkirk personifies exemplary. The throbbing soundtrack, once again courtesy of frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer, employs blaring horns and sheer noise to rattle your bones. An almost omnipresent ticking stopwatch underlines the impeccable sound design, which places you in the moment. Every bullet carves the screen and lands with a deafening thud; every dive from a Stuka bomber pierces the air like a shrieking banshee. It’s a terrifying aural and sensory assault from which the audience is unable to escape, much like the stranded soldiers around which the film revolves.
Nolan’s slavish pursuit of authenticity in Dunkirk is just one in long list of commendable aspects. Is it his magnum opus? It’s simply too soon to say, and with a filmography that also boasts The Prestige, Inception and Memento, it’s a question that is practically impossible to definitively answer. However, it is undoubtedly his most haunting and his most visceral, and you owe it to yourself to seek out the largest screen possible to soak it in.
And yes, for the One Direction fan who somehow found their way onto this review; Harry Styles does look pretty perf in camo.
Dunkirk is available in Australian cinemas from July 20
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films