Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
That is about the easiest way to summarize Christopher Nolan’s latest theatrical masterpiece, Dunkirk. Nolan takes one of the most harrowing, and triumphant military retreats in the history of the world, and brings it to the screen in a way that leaves you gripping the seat and emotionally exhausted by the time the credits roll after its brisk hour and forty five minutes run time, which is quite a bit less than typical Nolan fare.
Dunkirk focuses on the retreat of the military from France during World War II, where 400,000 British troops are pushed back onto the beaches of Dunkirk, and are trapped with the English Channel rife with German U-boats at their back, skies filled with German Luftwaffe, and the German Army pressing in on every side. Hope has nearly run out for these troops, and the British Navy has already suffered huge losses attempting to get their troops home from France. When the film opens the tension is already dialled right up, showing British troops running for their lives to get to what they hope is safety at the beaches of Dunkirk and a ride home to England. Nolan throughout does not let his foot off the gas and keeps the tension dialled up high.
The performances are absolutely stellar throughout the film, Kenneth Branagh delivers a fantastic performance as Commander Bolton who is attempting to organize the retreat from the beach, and delivers one very poignant line during the film, “you can practically see it from here”, his fellow officer asks him what and he simply responds, “home”. While the troops on the beach are almost able to see England from where they are it appears that any hope of actually seeing England is dwindling as they face nearly insurmountable odds, and no Navy ships in sight to get them there.
Now while all this sounds like it plays out like a typical war movie, it is far from that. This is more like a thriller than anything with the tension consistently dialling its way up and you truly become invested in these characters even though there is no backstory to them, they simply want to go home and that is truly all that is needed with what Nolan has achieved here.
Nolan brilliantly splits the story narrative into three parts of varying timelines focusing on the land, sea, and air aspects of the operation. The land portion being told from the perspective of two young soldiers in Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles who is surprisingly impressive in his first big screen role. The sea is led by Mark Rylance playing a captain of a fishing boat who is tasked with crossing the Channel to Dunkirk to retrieve the soldiers, and lastly the air is told from the perspective of Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden two RAF pilots tasked with keeping the Luftwaffe away from strafing and bombing the defenseless soldiers out on the beach. Supporting roles include Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and James D’Arcy and apparently there is a hidden cameo from Michael Caine. The acting throughout is absolutely stellar, everyone hitting there notes pitch perfect.
One thing that Nolan does with this film which has been a typical Nolan staple has been to play with time. Not so much like previous films where it becomes jarring and the ending of the film is a cross cutting nightmare and you are left needing to sort things out. It is neatly packaged and shows how everything leads up to the finale perfectly, and keeps the pace at an unrelenting speed, that makes it all the more brutal and claustrophobic even. The soldiers are basically trapped on the beach, they cannot go into town, they cannot travel up the coast, the water and air above are also littered with enemies. The only hope for them is to attempt to cross the English Channel. There are moments throughout Dunkirk that emphasize the deadly nature of the operation.
On top of that though the cinematography and music are just astounding. The airborne dogfighting scenes involving Tom Hardy are just stunning, and the battle scenes just draw the viewer even farther onto the battlefield and into the skies, and to add to the realism itself the much of the film was shot on the actual beaches at Dunkirk which just punctuate how gut punchingly real Nolan wanted this movie to come across.
Hans Zimmer scores this film, much like Nolan’s other films and wow does he ever add to the mounting tension. Quite a few movies this year have used music to fuel their film, movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Baby Driver have kept music at the forefront, sometimes using big bombastic scores to make the film go to another level. Dunkirk is a different beast altogether, where music is absolutely a key ingredient in making this one incredibly tense film to endure. Zimmer uses just simple violins to dial up the tension and it comes across as just masterful in its execution.
Dunkirk certainly skirts away from what other war movies have almost made a formula. You never see the Germans, the film never jumps away from the driving plot to rooms of generals, or men on radios barking orders, and there is no mention of the Americans. Which because of doing this it is entirely focused 100% on the events that occur on the beach at Dunkirk which causes the tension to remain firmly in place. Had halfway through the film they had cut to Churchill talking to generals or men on the piers of Dorset receiving soldiers it would have cut the tension and it could have diminished the white knuckle ride Nolan has crafted. Nolan put the focus solely on the rescue of the 330,000 men on that beach and it pays off.
Dunkirk is an absolute must see film.
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