Immense and Immersive: A Dunkirk Review
May 1940 and the Second World War is going terribly for the Allied forces. Thousands of men are stranded and surrounded on the north coast of France with Nazi forces gaining on them every day. As we’re told throughout the film: home is so close they can practically see it. With this in mind, Nolan opens his most recent film to smash into the cinema listings: Dunkirk.
But this is no typical blockbuster and nothing quite like the CGI-heavy Interstellar or the Batman trilogy that made Nolan famous. This film is a military operation and an almost immersive experience. The four settings that we are given in small font across the centre of the screen (the beach, the pier, the air, and the sea) seem to interlock in the way a military strategist might consider the terrain, ready to make a move. Things happen quickly and explosively. Sometimes the only warning we are given of an incoming attacker or defender is the quiver of Kenneth Branagh’s lip as he stares out to the horizon we do not see.
As the film hurtles through in a whirl of grit and sea spray, the cast do an excellent job of weaving a compelling tapestry of the types of men that made up the Dunkirk evacuation. Nolan also does well at driving this film with characters that we have little time to truly know. Famous names such as Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance steer the helm, however, it is the three soldiers we stick with throughout most of the film that really make an impact. The fresh-faced Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles make us realise just how young these soldiers were, and how desperate and traumatised a human can become. A moment that gets trapped in the mind is when these three boys sit on the beach, hunched over in soaked military uniform. They watch a fellow soldier strip himself of his life jacket and gun, launching himself into the sea as the slate-grey waves close in over him. None of them lift a finger, nor do their expressions change, they simply sit and the scene cuts away. The destruction of youth and innocence often plays a key role in World War films and Dunkirk makes no exception, these three young actors carry the heart of this film with all of its fury and misery.
However, what confirms that Dunkirk is not quite your typical summer blockbuster is the tone that Nolan sets at the end of the film. Similar films of the genre might employ an epilogue featuring the victory bells of 1945 or even a cut to the characters with silver hair, weeping over the aged tombstones of their fallen comrades. Nolan steers away from this nostalgia trip. As the lights go up at the end of Dunkirk we are left completely and uncomfortably aware that this war is far from over. The traumatised, oil-covered soldiers that make it across the Channel will most likely not survive until VE Day – El Alamein and the Battle of Normandy are yet to come. Churchill’s famous speech ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ seems less of a battle cry left ringing in the ears of satisfied cinema-goers, but a little stinging and sarcastic. After all, these men have been completely unable to do just that. The film ties off in a way that suggests that there are years of war left to fight but gives us no way to properly cope with it, leaving that and the weariness of witnessing so much destruction deep in our bones.
Dunkirk is a great film, it forges forwards ruthlessly and efficiently until its final moment. The experience that Nolan has created is intensely immersive and driven by characters and settings that interlock as pieces of a military puzzle. It will stay with you long after you see it, for better or worse.
I give it 4/5 stars.