Christopher Nolan is back behind the camera, praise be, not any old camera though, oh no. He’s back behind the epic IMAX format for which he is firmly becoming the master for.
Dunkirk is really three stories rolled into one. On the ground we have Fionn Whitehead (Him (TV)) and Damien Bonnard (Staying Vertical, A Perfect Plan). In the air is Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman: The Dark Knight Rises) and Jack Lowden (Denial, ’71). Whilst in the sea we have Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, The BFG), Tom Glynn-Carney (The Last Post (TV), Casualty (TV)) and Barry Keoghan (’71, Traders).
Naturally, the story is of the soldiers from the British Empire, along with French, Belgium, Dutch and anyone bar the Germans, trying to retreat from the war with Germany as the German army surrounds them, encroaching on their position and dropping bombs on the retreating soldiers and ships.
The way these three stories interconnect with each other, sometimes meaning we get to see the same aerial dog-fight from differing perspectives, or the same ship sunk in a variety of ways, is stunning.
I’m sure you’ve seen the monumental efforts Nolan and his team went through to get the large format IMAX cameras into places they have never been before.
Seeing a dog-fight from a Spitfire in IMAX is breath-taking, coupled with the shots of bombs being dropped on Allied forces awaiting ships on the beach, or those (un)lucky enough to have made it onto a ship only for it to be bombed, I can say it was worth the effort.
There aren’t many words said in Dunkirk, it could almost be a silent film. The opening scene of Whitehead and a few other soldiers in the deserted streets not far from the beaches is silent.
German leaflets flutter down on their heads showing that they are surrounded. Then the gunfire starts and it punches the air with ferocity. It’s startling and something Nolan and his sound crew use to fantastic effect throughout.
The film zips along at some pace, and, whilst not many words are said, from the first crackle of gun-fire you have this faint ticking clock sound in the background, ominously getting louder, ending when…well, that would be telling.
The affect it has is wonderful, it heightens the tension and your senses. There were people in the theatre literally gripping their seats whilst the girl next to me was in cringing, jumping and in tears at various points.
Whitehead and Bonnard are wonderful, trying all they can to get off this damn beach. Their silent, knowing looks and subtle nods between each other are great.
Rylance, Glynn-Carney and Keoghan are a great trio of civilians who sail out to Dunkirk to try and bring the troops home. They are joined along the way by Cillian Murphy (Inception, 28 Days Later), who they rescue after the ship he was on is torpedoed.
Murphy brings a touch of rawness to what has, up to that point for the trio, been relatively smooth sailing, despite what they know they are heading into.
In the air and Hardy and Lowden shoot down German planes with startling accuracy, perhaps the only part of the film where you become aware you are watching a film, not a documentary.
If it seems like I’m zipping through these latter two it’s because you don’t see much of Hardy. His story is one fraught with his own dangers, that of the very real risk of running out of fuel, whilst helping the boats below by destroying enemy fighters and bombers.
The bulk of the story follows Whitehead and Bonnard and, joining them a little later, a certain Mr. Harry Styles (he of One Direction fame) who, to be fair, isn’t half-bad in the film at all.
With Dunkirk, Nolan shows why he is a master of story-telling. How he can mix big, live-action set pieces with grittier, human-interest drama.
Dunkirk is absolutely stunning, no question. The use of sound of sound-effects, of IMAX, the story telling, the human aspect of it all, it is just beautifully and delicately done.
Well done Mr. Nolan, well done. But I do not envy you trying to sell this in countries where this story doesn’t hit-home with the same resonance.