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You may rightly question what place an old-fashioned war-epic like Dunkirk has in the modern blockbuster landscape but thinking it’s a war epic would be your first mistake. This is much closer to a survival-horror film. Within seconds of the film opening, the overriding emotions are panic and fear and thanks to an impressive score from Hans Zimmer, that tension never gets an opportunity to dissipate. The film concerns the evacuation of Dunkirk and primarily follows Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy though, like most Nolan films, this is an ensemble piece. Showing us the evacuation and ensuing battles from the land, the sea and the air, the film tells the overlapping stories of various characters trapped in and/or trying to escape from or attempting to aid with the Dunkirk situation.
Unsurprisingly Nolan has assembled an impressive cast of established and emerging stars. Quite what he has against letting Tom Hardy full-face act is beyond this humble viewer but much like when he beat up the Batman, Hardy once again spends 90% of the film eye-acting with his mouth muffled by a mask and still manages to deliver a great performance. Our nominal lead, Whitehead, plucked seemingly from obscurity and dumped front and centre in a Nolan film acquits himself exceedingly well. As does our own Barry Keoghan, adding another flawless accent to his ever growing repertoire. But all any of you want to know; is that Harry Styles fella, who used to do the singing, any use? Well, yes. He’s not the second coming of Heath Ledger as far as unexpected castings go but he’s undeniably decent in his role and shows an ability to play unlikeable convincingly and with ease. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a man used to singing to thousands in stadiums, can command a screen presence but it’s not a leap every performer can make. There’s no point going through the cast one-by-one, it’s a faultless set of performances even if Kenneth Branagh only seems to be here to cry patriotically.
This is not simply an actor’s film however. If you have any trepidation about the value of a WW2 film being released in the centre of the modern blockbuster season then fear not. Nolan’s assured hand does masterful work throughout but most eye-catchingly during the aerial dogfights. The smooth, very gradual glide of the camera as the planes dance through the air – bolstered by Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography – create some truly stunning sequences which are simultaneously breathlessly exciting and visually beautiful. Contrast this with the claustrophobic scenes set on sinking ships and rest assured; if you didn’t enter this film with a very present fear of drowning, you’ll leave with one after the horrifying immediacy of seeing it.
Sound has always played an important part of Nolan’s work but it plays perhaps its largest role in this particular film. The decision to never actually show the enemy – aside from their planes and gunfire – leaves the German’s as a nebulous, seemingly omnipresent, faceless force of destruction. The ear-piercing and chest-rattling screams of their planes as they swoop in to reign death on the allied forces are genuinely terrifying at times, occasionally tipping the film fully into horror territory – though Barry Keoghan politely disagreed with me on that assertion, check out HeadStuff’s interview with the young talent below. What aides this is the constant presence of Zimmer’s score, easily his best work in years. The prominent ticking-clock motif woven through most of the music is an unsubtle but undeniably effective tension-builder. The unending slow build of the various pieces manage to solidify a consistently mounting tension and sense of dread; maintaining it even through the quieter scenes and in spite of the film’s cutting between so many characters.
There are a couple of minor quibbles worth expressing. The first arguably falls under the embarrassment of riches logic but nonetheless; between the short running time and Nolan’s penchant for large ensemble star-studded casts, there is a creeping sense that you’re watching a film made up of cameos. Even the lead doesn’t actually have a huge amount of screen time when you think about it. It doesn’t affect proceedings too much as the tension of the tone and mood carries you through but you may find yourself wishing afterward that you’d had more time with Hardy or Murphy’s characters for example.
The more irritating issue is one which Nolan fans and detractors alike have mentioned before but which here feels especially unnecessary. Once again our boy Chris has opted for some completely pointless non-linearity in his film but in this instance, it genuinely adds nothing. In fact, it actively threatens to pull you out of the carefully maintained tension and flow of the film as you’re distracted in trying to line up the present events with ones previously witnessed from another vantage point. Aside from not actually adding to the tension, it’s not even a case of the film potentially being less exciting were it laid out in the correct sequence, this isn’t Deadpool, the film would have worked just as well in its chronological order.
While noticeable, these issues cannot derail what is otherwise an impressive piece of work and definite return to form for Nolan after the largely passable but somewhat embarrassing Interstellar. Masterfully orchestrated to be as unbearably tense and thrilling as possible, bravely eschewing the seemingly mandatory too-long running time in favour of a nail-bitingly brisk one which never outstays its welcome. And all this with relatively little dialogue. This is an old fashioned story told with old fashioned techniques, yet in Nolan’s undeniably assured hands it’s as effective and deserving of its place as a prime summer release, as anything else due out this blockbuster season. See it in 70mm if you can.