If you are expecting a big extravagant war film, this isn’t it. If you’re after character driven stories of why war is important in their life, this isn’t it. If you’re after a grand love story about the man who came back from war to his loving wife and family, this isn’t it. Dunkirk is much more than you’d expect from a blockbuster war film. It’s Christopher Nolan after all, famous for Batman’s Dark Night trilogy. But what Nolan has created is a horrible story of war and survival into a visually stunning and spectacularly scored story of civilians aiding in the soldiers rescue. A beautiful masterpiece in all its glory.
The story of Dunkirk is one that has been the base of many tale. The German’s forcing the French and British forces onto a beach in Dunkirk with no easy way out as any large boat couldn’t get close enough. So the British Government sent a message out to get any person who owns a boat of certain size and hand it over to the Navy to ferry the men off of the beach. The Navy took some, but a lot of weekend Captains took to bringing the men home on their own.
With this little bit of history that no doubt will be filled with many stories from families that helped by lending their boats, Director Christopher Nolan created his own story pulling parts from the history books and the stories of the local heroes. And it goes a little something like this. We follow a group of men walk the street of Dunkirk in France with propaganda leaflets falling from the skies taunting the British and the French Armies of their position. The men have no shelter and are fired upon. One young man, Tommy manages to escape and find his way to the beach for evacuation. The evacuation that takes much longer than planned. Tommy attempts to get on board the Medical vessel until it sinks. He then tries to commandeer a small boat for that to sink as well. Until he is finally rescued by a weekend Captain, Mr Dawson and taken back to the UK, ready for the next battle with the Germans.
While we follow Tommy and his journey to safety we meet a number of other characters aside from Mr Dawson and his son and friend. As the men stand and wait patiently for their evacuation on the beach German fighter planes bomb it, the pier and any large vessels carrying the men. In comes the two and only two British fighter planes and take out the troublesome Germans until one crashes and the other runs out of fuel only to land safely once the day has been saved.
So what you have is a film about an evacuation. Not a whole lot of war and only an ever so slight hint and blood. It’s not gruesome and it’s not filled with shooting and bombing. It’s about the many stories of the few who helped the men get back to British soil and a great deal more men than they were planning.
While the actors in Dunkirk were cast with perfection, there are two people who made this film exactly why it is so perfect, Director Christopher Nolan and Composer Hans Zimmer. Nolan is maybe most famous for the Batman Trilogy, staring Christian Bale, Inception and Interstellar. Interestingly these three films Nolan had Composer Hans Zimmer score as well.
What Nolan has created with Dunkirk is a film driven by the story not by the characters, which is unusual for a blockbuster. There isn’t a character in the film where you are forced to love or hate them you don’t build an attachment to anyone. Another thing that Nolan has done with Dunkirk is created a blockbuster film about war and completely stripped it down to a small, tiny, minute part of the Second World War. And in stripping it down to this small story of WWII, Nolan has taken away the entirety of what you would expect from a film about a war. There aren’t long shootouts or horrible fight scenes filled with every spare dollar of the films budget to have the best CGI to make war look extravagant. The extravagance of Dunkirk is in its visual beauty. You could almost think the film was more an art film than that of a blockbuster.
Nolan filmed Dunkirk is 70mm which may mean nothing to an everyday theatregoer but everything to a lover of film. Basically your average film is filmed in 35mm, the kind of film you’d watch at your local cinema. But Dunkirk used a larger 70mm film, which is the size you’d find at an IMAX theatre. What this enabled Nolan to do is create a stunning visual experience. Every shot, every scene, every colour and every moving image is truly spectacular. Which is what you would expect from 70mm. But Nolan is showing off in Dunkirk. In his 70mm he manages to capture a stunning ocean in all its glory with a relentless beach, the inside of a fighter plane is clear and almost beautiful as you see what it was like in the 1940s. Each shot is stunning and beautiful something of which you would expect at an art gallery.
But these shots of action and drama, beauty and splendour wouldn’t be anything if it weren’t for the immaculate score from Hans Zimmer. While you might not know Zimmer and his work as the score of a film is something of an after thought when there is so much more going on for the senses. Zimmer is behind some of the greatest films of the last 30 years. The Lion King is what catapulted his career, but he has also composed, Mission Impossible, The Nolan Batman Films, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock Holmes and Transformers. The thing to note from these films is how different the sound of each one is. And he has done it again with Dunkirk. A truly different sound to anything he has done before using his traditional technique of electronic and classical instruments.
Zimmer’s ability to create a sound that compliments the scene and build suspense or comfort is truly unique. If you manage to stop and listen to what he is creating as you watch the action you can hear he has made the sound of a jet, a bullet or a crash all from instruments and made it music. Some of the most spectacular pieces are when the planes are fighting each other. It’s almost a whole other journey than what you are watching.
The performances of the actors in this film are second to none. There is hardly a script and even then minimal when there is dialogue, something that can only be mastered by the very talented. And these performances are true and honest to the story. The journey starts with Tommy played by Fionn Whitehead a relatively unknown aside from a TV Mini-series called Him. Whitehead manages to capture a great deal of emotion through his face and body language. You could count the number of sentences on two hands he has in the entire film and that works perfectly. He has this young man lost in a crazy world feeling where you just want to get him in a head lock him and rub his head and tell him everything’s going to be okay.
The most notable name in the film, aside from Harry Styles is Tom Hardy. Once again this performance is not only with minimal dialogue, but his face covered by an oxygen mask as he pilots his fighter plane around the skies. Not a great deal to his story but a huge amount of emotion that seeps through his facial expression.
The performances by all of the actors is almost like you already know them. They have a back-story that isn’t shared but you can feel what it is they have gone through and what it is they are feeling. Made even better by the fact that they aren’t telling you how they are feeling, they are showing you how they are feeling. It adds to the whole arty style of the entire film.
Overall this is possibly one of the greatest films to have graced the screens in some time. Each shot is filled with such emotion and beauty both in the performances of the actors and in the scene itself. The story is clever in the way it’s told, putting all the small parts together about the journey to get these men back home. The score ads another element taking the audience on a journey with the men you watch them on the screen. It is a beauty to the eye and to the ear and is an absolute masterpiece worthy of its praises.
Review by Jay Cook