Following 2014’s visually sumptuous if somewhat overrated Interstellar, Christopher Nolan has left the vastness of space and come back down to Earth with an atypical war drama. Indeed, in depicting the events of Operation Dynamo and how Allied troops were evacuated from the French beaches during WWII, the British director has delivered this summer’s most unlikely blockbuster.
What could have been a straightforward affair is given a time-themed spin: we follow the events of 1940 through the chronology-bending structure of three intercutting perspectives. The land-based thread, “The Mole”, takes place over the course of a week and sees newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a British soldier trying to make his way back home; “The Sea” lasts one day and follows Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, who captains his civilian boat across the Channel. The third vantage point, “The Air”, finds Tom Hardy – donning the mask once more for Nolan after The Dark Knight Rises’ Bane – engaging the Luftwaffe in a perilous one hour mission. These elemental strands interlock in an ingeniously orchestrated piece of filmmaking, one which distances itself from the conventions of traditional war movie storytelling. The dialogue is minimal, to the point where one could consider Dunkirk a silent film in spirit, and in keeping the running time to a tight 106 minutes (a rarity nowadays for tentpole summer releases), Nolan assures that precise pacing feeds the mounting suspense levels.
Although Nolan has succeeded in making the definitive film about the evacuation of Dunkirk, historical accuracy and sensory immersion have clearly been privileged over any kind of meaningful characterisation. This will fan the flames of those who repeatedly level criticism at the director for a certain emotional rigidity. While not inaccurate, character estrangement here matches the clockwork precision of Lee Smith’s editing, and this coldness feels de rigueur as it prohibits any vaingloriously patriotic speeches inherent to the genre.
Above all, Dunkirk demands to be seen on the largest screen you can, IMAX if possible; few directors wield this mastery of scale, one which can only be truly experienced on a big screen and with the necessary surround sound. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s aerial photography and crisp beach shots will leave jaws hanging, and the assaultive sound design is quite possibly the film’s biggest draw: each sound effect will make your internal organs vibrate, each ticking clock effect woven within Hans Zimmer’s ominous score will quicken your pulse. Dunkirk may not be the all-out masterpiece that many are claiming, but it’s a dexterous, technically flawless affair that is sure to be the most immersive film you’ll see all year.
Dunkirk | Directed by Christopher Nolan (UK, 2017) with Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy. Starts July 27.
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