June 1940. Four-hundred thousand British soldiers prepare for evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk. While Privates Alex (Harry Styles), Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) await rescue, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and pleasure-boat skipper Dawson (Mark Rylance) rush to help their comrades in arms.
Opening on the streets of Dunkirk, Private Tommy dodges German gunfire and propaganda leaflets telling him “We surround you”. From the first shot, Hoyte van Hoytema’s 70mm cinematography is stunning, drawing us irresistibly in to the frame. As the vista opens up on to the beaches and English channel, Dunkirk shows its hand as a film that demands to be seen in IMAX. One might expect such a canvas to be accompanied by Saving Private Ryan-esque panoramic carnage, but rather than giving scope for large-scale violence, it simply serves to amp up the tension.
The frayed tension is underscored by Hans Zimmer’s appropriately sturm und drang compositions, driven as they are by the rhythm of that recurring Christopher Nolan motif, the ticking clock. Nolan’s other directorial tics are all present and correct, but rarely have they been under such control. A second-act playing with the film’s linearity mines narrative tension and emphasises the passing of time, and more than once does the camera rotate, Inception-like, to create disorientation and panic. As a depiction of the evacuation rendered as pure cinematic experience, it’s almost flawless.
Playing like the concluding act of another film, Dunkirk largely dispenses with rote exposition and clichéd characterisation. Throwing his audience in to the fray, Nolan’s tendency to use his characters as plot devices transforms from a vice into a virtue – as Mr Dawson tells his rescued soldier (Cillian Murphy), they’ve got a job to do, and there’s not time for worrying about much else. Nevertheless, his cast, particularly the younger members, are not without nuance, particularly Harry Styles’ scared-shitless Alex, who occasionally acts ignobly but always understandably.
As a director, Nolan has always been more of a craftsman than an artist. To be sure, his films are meticulous, bombastic entertainments: his Dark Knight Trilogy reinvented a modern myth, his Inception was a puzzle-box blockbuster, his Interstellar a stab at Kubrickian grandeur. But he has always shied from the messy humanity that could derail his beautiful clockworks. Dunkirk, tellingly, is the first of Nolan’s films to induce tears in its final frames. The director’s technical mastery finally transcends craft to become art and, as a result, this is his best film to date.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell