It’s fair to say that in the current age of cinema, people like J.J. Abrams and Colin Trevorrow have the tendency to try to make the sort of films that Steven Spielberg crafted his legacy out of. If that be the case, then it’s Christopher Nolan who is making films that call back to the perfectly orchestrated acts of Stanley Kubrick.
Having wowed us with his previous work, with each film inevitably finding a place on someone’s top ten list (The Prestige cracks my top five), Dunkirk becomes the pinnacle of Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, a man entirely in control of his medium and doing as he pleases.
From the outset it’s a fairly simple set up, which begins telling a well known story: the evacuation of Dunkirk. However, like comic book films, a murder mystery or a story of a heist in a dream, it’s not so simple. Nolan tells three stories, one of the ground level troops on the beach, one of the sea rescue and one of the air protection, each one taking place in a different amount of time. We learn quickly that Nolan has constructed three concentric circles of story that will at some point collide in true Nolan fashion.
The first, ‘The Mole’, is the story of our boys on the beach awaiting rescue; a wait that lasts a full week. Here we view the story through the eyes of Fionn Whitehead’s wide eyed waif Tommy who crosses paths with fellow soldiers Aneurin Barnard and One Direction’s Harry Styles. This week long wait for help provides the ground level perspective and allows for small roles by Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy who generally provide us with the relative information on what is going to happen and when.
The second act, ‘The Sea’, brings us into the story of Mark Rylance’s Dawson, his son Peter and local boy George, all of whom take to the seas for the day long trip to Dunkirk to rescue as many lads as possible. There they cross paths with a scared Cillian Murphy, where we see the emotional core of the film, as we learn about the cost of war, the toll it takes, and the human element. It’s Rylance who emotionally controls the film, with the most likeable character.
The third, ‘The Air’, is a simple one: an hour in which the two RAF pilots played by Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy protect the boats, and the boys on the beach, from attack by the Germans. This might be the most thrilling of the three stories, providing incredible air visuals, but it lacks an emotional element; though it does feature a voice cameo by a knight of the British empire.
What Nolan’s cinema does is to put some of the biggest names and the best in their fields front and center, and mount images on a screen that can barely be rivalled. In the past, his work has seen him take control of IMAX cameras for some of the best moments in cinema, that have lingered in the mind since. Nolan’s cinema is more than just dialogue, it’s images and spectacle that mean something. People remember the images of Batman jumping down a flight of stairs surrounded by bats, or Guy Pearce holding a polaroid. Al Pacino running through the fog, Hugh Jackman standing among exploding sparks. Here, he mounts another series of impressive visuals: from seas swarmed in boats, to wing mounted dog fights, rows of people looking like long piers; each image is so perfectly constructed it could have been us.
It’s a technical marvel, one that deserves awards glory, from the deafening sound design that has war planes screech across the sky like a dinosaur, to the visuals of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography that show the beauty of the ocean without shying from the horror of warfare. Hans Zimmer’s score, a sublime confection of intense building, to a pocket watch ticking motif that tells you something is coming.
It’s also a brave film, one that says there is a bravery in preserving life, and one that pushes the limits of what a 12A film can do. There is some bad language (two uses of the F word courtesy of Mr Styles), but the worst is seeing people blown sky high, drown and in one particularly horrifying section, burned alive.
There is no moment in the film where it seems to be holding back, and Nolan, one of cinemas best story tellers, weaves the three with the ease of a man who has worked in so many genres he could do a romcom and it’d probably get a Best Picture nomination. This film is by no means the end for Nolan, but it feels like the culmination of something, the interwoven stories of Interstellar, the time frame shifts of The Prestige, the epic sweeps of The Dark Knight Rises, the darker aspects of the human nature of The Dark Knight and of course the water motif of Inception.
The film is one of the most original films in several years, but that doesn’t make it seem worthy; no matter what else happens, it’s a fantastic piece of a blockbusting cinema. In a year in which we have Hacksaw Ridge and two films about William Churchill, Dunkirk shows us that there are still some pretty incredible and original films to be made about one of the most filmed pieces of world history.