Dunkirk is a war movie like no other war movie before it, or most likely after it. The film is loosely based on the historic events of the massive evacuation of British troops from the northern French city of Dunkirk in 1940. Surrounded on three sides by the Germans and cut off from both the British fleet and air force the only choice is to evacuate via the English Channel. Here at the Strait of Dover the English Channel, which separates Great Britain from France, is at its narrowest. As a matter of fact, on a clear day you can see the other shore of the foreign country.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who once again plays with chronology, Dunkirk is occasionally challenging when tracking the stories and time, especially near the beginning. Have no fear, for soon you will be so emotionally involved, and wowed by the spectacular visuals and cowed by the amazing sound design and score, that your very identity will be shaken to the core and where you are and what time it is will be irrelevant.
Told in Triptych, with the title of “one hour” “one day” and “one week” the stories are woven together, and involve a cast of hundreds for the fleeing soldiers (one week), a small cast on a privately owned sail boat manned by a British Civilian Captain played by Oscar winner Mark Rylance (one day) and a cast of two British Air Force pilots in separate fighters (one hour) played by actors Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden.
Dunkirk is indefinable; elliptical, intimate, immersive, claustrophobic, compact, yet sweeping. War is a terrifying hell and this hell is especially palpable when experienced in this cinematic feast. Has Nolan ever seen a tripod? I couldn’t spot a stationary shot in the entire film, except for the perhaps the last one. Scenes of chaos, especially when soldiers feel trapped, or drowning or generally fighting for their lives are brilliantly realized. Hans Zimmer’s haunting score combined with the rich, lush inimitable sound design add to the intensity.
It is beautiful to behold, and it is the type of film you experience, with the story secondary to what you are feeling, seeing and hearing. A treat for your senses, that ultimately celebrates the bravery and strength of all soldiers who have served. The fact that the film is less than two hours, rated PG-13, with no graphic violence but it still manages to have the audience experience the horror of war, in all of its irony, senselessness and relentless fear, makes it almost subversive. Like a lyrical poem, novella or song, its impact stays with you days after you have seen it.