Nail-biting. Harrowing. Amazing. Three words that sum up my experience of Dunkirk. This movie is unlike every other you will watch this year. It will grab you from your cosy seat and thrust you into the depths of war. And that is just the first 5 minutes. From there, we are taken on a pulse-pounding and bone-rattling 106-minute journey with every moment jaw-droppingly, yet starkly beautiful. There are few moments to catch your breath, much like the hell that the characters are put through.
For those unaware of the paradoxical tale of the most victorious defeat in British military history, here is a little context that the movie gives you in its opening moments. The British and French Armies have attempted to fight the forces of Nazi Germany back in the opening nine months of the war but have catastrophically failed. They have been pushed back further and further until the German forces surround them at the town of Dunkirk, across the English Channel but less than 30 miles from home. 400 000 men. Trapped. Churchill wanted to rescue 30 000, Ramsey wanted 40 000. This film depicts the miracle that almost 330 000 British and French soldiers were saved.
The story is told in three ways and at three rates: there are the men on the beach, struggling for a week, the journey of the boats from Britain, told over a day, and the Spitfire pilots who defended the evacuation over the final hour. Three plotlines told simultaneously and cleverly weaved together where certain events are shown happening at different times in the different narratives. At first, it might seem a little odd, but this method cranks up the intensity throughout. Events of the three timelines merge and entwine until you reach an incredibly satisfying climax.
You will have never seen a film like this. I guarantee it. Not only is the narrative told uniquely, the dialogue is near enough absent. There are minutes and minutes of action without a single word spoken. Every utterance is used incredibly precise and every shot chosen to perfectly complement it. The backdrop of the actual Dunkirk beaches, the cramped confines of the boats and the swooping action of the planes are all depicted in a magnificent way, being recorded almost entirely with IMAX cameras. If you watch this film, there is no better way to watch it than IMAX. The visuals and sound are never more perfectly realised. The sound! I haven’t mentioned how incredible the sound effects are. You will be floored by almost every explosion, engine roar and gunshot as each noise blasts out of the screen. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s brilliant new score, there is never a quiet moment, despite the lack of dialogue.
I have heard criticism that this movie lacks emotion and that is absolute nonsense. I did not need to hear about the backstory of every character to feel how lost, desperate and petrified they were. The emotion is derived from the depiction of the scenery, the intensity of the action and the facial expressions and quiet character moments you get from the stellar cast. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, BFG) is the real standout performance for me here but everyone plays a terrific role with Kenneth Brannagh (Hamlet, Harry Potter as Professor Lockhart) on top form and Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy providing solid performances too. Newcomers Harry Styles (One Direction singer, duh!) and Fionn Whitehead take us quite literally through the true horrors of the evacuation and bring great physicality and believability as two teens yearning to get home.
All credit here must go to Christopher Nolan though. After the dream world of Inception, darkness of the Dark Knight Trilogy, and time warping of Interstellar, he has written and directed another masterpiece. This is, at the very least, the greatest war movie since Saving Private Ryan and, because of a small personal connection to the story of Dunkirk, to me it surpasses it. It is my favourite film of the year and one of the most unique cinema experiences ever. Get watching!