Film Review: Dunkirk (USA/UK, 2017) may be the most spectacular war film ever produced

When the name Christopher Nolan is attached to a film, you know you’re in for a blockbuster by any standards. Whether it’s a big budget sci-fi epic (as in Interstellar) or a comic book trilogy (The Dark Knight) to rival any of the genre, Nolan’s work has been virtually unmatched by any of his contemporaries. This week, the latest addition to his stand out filmography hits cinemas, Dunkirk, which sees the writer and director travelling to World War II with a telling of the story of Operation Dynamo and the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

As always, Nolan has assembled an incredible ensemble as part of his project. In terms of the cast, a few familiar faces from Nolan’s work to date pop up, such as Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy (who, as in The Dark Knight Rises, largely performs with his eyes) – and listen out for a Michael Caine cameo – though it’s Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and a relatively unknown cast of young actors who steal the film.

Harry Styles is the most recognisable of the lot, though Tom Glynn-Carney and Fionn Whitehead both deliver the most memorable performances as Rylance’s son (Peter) and a soldier (Tommy) just trying to get home, respectively. Rylance, meanwhile, plays Mr. Dawson, the man who feels it his duty to put himself and his son in harm’s way to save the helpless souls at Dunkirk. And though Rylance’s character and performance sits at the heart of the story, ultimately you know little about the characters – some characters (such as Murphy’s), you don’t even know their names – but Nolan doesn’t want you to. He wants you to experience the rescue and the escape at face value. It’s remarkable how much you empathise with the characters irrespective of their details; a testament to his direction and their performances.

Indeed, this is as much an escape film as it is a war film; it’s not about the battle but about the retreat, a moment in the war where the French, Canadians, Belgians and the British were pushed onto the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by the Germans, who notably  never appear in the film; only made present through the sound of bullets and the sight of bombers. With only the channel between France and the UK separating them from heading home, this is the story of how so many of them lost their lives – but how so many were able to escape from the seemingly inescapable scenario.

Much like in Nolan’s breakthrough piece Memento, and for the first time since his work there, Dunkirk is structured, in part, out of order. Told as a triptych, from three different perspectives – by land, by sea and by air – each perspective starts from a different point in the storyline, ultimately converging for the film’s denouement. It’s a clever way to construct the narrative, and becomes one of Nolan’s most daring works because of it. It’s also a film which is driven by action, rather than dialogue; the script notably being Nolan’s shortest. Few words are spoken by the characters throughout, with the war itself and the actions of the main characters speaking for themselves. I was reminded of The Revenant in this respect – both harrowing stories of survival, spectacularly told and beautifully shot.

Visually, this film grabs you from the first frame; indeed, the cinematography is absolutely stunning and every shot feels like a work of art – a mix of 65mm, and IMAX 65mm bringing together some incredible sequences throughout the film, particularly in the air. These were the shots that Howard Hughes dreamed of. Strapped to the side of these tiny planes – there’s no question so much of what you’re seeing is really happening. This is, after all, a Christopher Nolan film. And that’s true down to the fact that he had some 6,000 extras in the film – a remarkable feat for filmmaking today which otherwise relies on computer imagery to fulfill such demands. But such is the nature of Nolan as a filmmaker – he knows the value of practical effects, and seeing everything in camera, using digital only when it’s absolutely necessary.

And then there’s the sound. From the first gunshot, through to the first time the planes come screeching overhead, the audience is drowned in sound, while the bombs drop on the cast. It’s clear Nolan wants to elicit a visceral reaction from his audience; this is one of the loudest films I’ve ever experienced, producing an experience unlike one I’ve ever had in the cinema – all while Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly tense score plays in the background – think Inception, cranked up to eleven and never letting you go.

As for its war themes, the film itself could be compared to Mel Gibson’s Oscar nominated Hacksaw Ridge. In both films, we see an unlikely candidate as our hero, amongst a literal (in Ridge) and metaphorical (in Dunkirk) wall of devastation. But purely from a production point of view, Nolan and his team and regular collaborators – cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Lee Smith to name but a few – have created a film which is beautiful to witness, blowing Gibson’s work out of the water. It helped that they didn’t need to waste any time on character development, as was so important in Ridge.

Though it’s fair to say that the film is a modern masterpiece, and almost certainly the most epic war film ever produced, there are a couple of minor flaws that keep it from five stars. The construction of the narrative and the rather confusing way time is laid out in the opening slides creates some unnecessary confusion. For one, how Cillian Murphy end up where he did? Normally I wouldn’t have even thought about it, but the very construction of the piece led me there.

And then there’s Zimmer’s score. One of his most epic and impactful. But it does not let up. This is the without question the most intense score he’s ever created; the music keeping the tension in every scene and propelling the audience into a state of constant trepidation, even when it may not have been necessary. Of course this is very much on purpose – Nolan has created a war film with a capital W. He wants you to feel like you’re in it, like you’re part of bit. He wants you to feel the ships and just about smell the oil before it starts to burn. And he wants you to fear the unknown just as much as the soldiers, at every moment, and at every turn. And he achieves this almost too well. As beautiful as it is to look at, it can make it a difficult viewing experience. But really shouldn’t it be? Should we ever be “celebrating” war?

Then there’s the use of the IMAX camera, which pervades the film. Even on the 70mm print you can make out where it cuts to the big format camera – it’s that little bit crisper, and the framing is that little bit difference. Sadly, the loss of Sydney’s IMAX screen has limited the opportunities to see the film as it was intended, but luckily there are a host of 70mm screenings to make up for it. And Melbourne’s IMAX screen will certainly be a must-see destination. I enjoyed the film so much I may travel down just to experience it as it was intended. And that’s part of the problem as a film nerd – you know you’re not seeing it as it’s intended.

Regardless of these minor gripes, Dunkirk is a masterpiece of contemporary filmmaking, and it does not disappoint, adding another spectacular film of the master auteur’s catalogue. See it on the biggest screen you can, in 70mm or IMAX, and consider ear plugs. If you’re seeing it in the right cinema, you might actually need them.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Dunkirk is in cinemas now.