Christopher Nolan is known for his intelligent style of film making, but his body of work has been mostly science fiction. For the first time, Nolan turns to an epic historical story about the evacuation of Dunkirk during WWII. However, if you assumed this change in the genre was going to bind Nolan into making a traditional true story, then you are in for a major surprise.
In the French city of Dunkirk, thousands of soldiers of the allied forces are trapped by the Nazis and are being bombarded. The British soldiers can see their homeland across the channel, but evacuating all these soldiers under constant fire from German air force and U-Boat attacks, seems almost impossible.
The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward, in fact, its theme is its plot. It’s the gripping execution that is the strength of the movie. Nolan puts you in the midst of the battle and manages to elicit the one emotion that is at the core of the movie: fear. In a war fought with torpedoes and bombs, the stranded soldiers are sitting ducks on the land, and can only hope for a miracle to save them. This enthralling execution is buttressed by Nolan’s classic move to go for a unique style of non-linear storytelling. The events of the land, sea, and air are presented in separate timelines, with the story of the land spanning a week, the story of the sea spanning a whole day and the events in the air take place over an hour. These three timelines are given equal runtime in the movie and are intercut with one another. It’s a puzzle that makes sense when it all comes together in the last act. This is something that Nolan is a master of, given his similar approaches to nonlinear storytelling in Memento and Prestige. Hans Zimmer’s brilliant soundtrack plays non-stop for the entire runtime, with the sound of a clock ticking in the background to instill the sense of urgency. There are also some really poignant scenes that break your heart. For a movie about war, there is literally nothing gruesome shown on screen. The emotions engendered are merely through the use of gripping storytelling supported by the urgency of the soundtrack. The characters, although fictional, are developed amazingly well and you can relate with each of the protagonists and their intentions. Mark Rylance is superb as the protagonist of the sea, trying to save as many men from Dunkirk as he can on his holiday boat. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh are all well-cast and do excellent jobs with their parts. One of the biggest strengths of the movie is its breathtaking cinematography. Hoyte Van Hoytema proves to be a pioneer of IMAX cinematography, with beautiful wide shots of the beach, the skies, and the sea.
There are scenes where the music could have been dialed down a little, especially those with more dialogues. The movie has very few dialogues and most of them end up being drained by the loud and continuous soundtrack. Although the soundtrack adds to the experience, it’s just annoying if you can’t hear people speak because of the background music. To be frank, Dunkirk’s plot may have been a historical event for what it triggered, but in itself, isn’t really much of a story. Its forte is a brilliant script and a superb team of film makers, who execute the minimal plot with finesse.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a rare film of survival, that is not only both intelligent and riveting but also has a heart. Against the constant background score that reminds you of the time ticking, this movie captures the fear and the horror of war without even the sight of blood. With Dunkirk as his 10th movie, Nolan’s impressive roster of movies remains ever as impressive. I will rate this 8/10. In spite of very little story, it’s a visceral experience and well worth the price of admission.
PS: If you can manage it, watch Dunkirk in one of the 31 theaters screening it in 70mm IMAX for the best experience.