Based on the events of the 1940 evacuation, Dunkirk tells the story of various British soldiers who attempted to escape France, and of the civilians coming to their aid. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film has been hugely anticipated, and, for the most part, extremely well reviewed. As a big fan of both Nolan and war films, I was both excited and nervous to see whether Dunkirk would live up to the hype. Now, reflecting on the film, I can safely say it was the greatest cinematic experience I have ever had.
The word ‘experience’ is key, Dunkirk shouldn’t be viewed as a standard film that focuses on plot and character to create an engaging story. Instead these elements are left behind to create a realistic and utterly immersive and riveting film that is almost like a ride. The characters, played by a mixture of top British stars (such as Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance) and relative newcomers (including Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Jack Lowden) are simply people put into this situation. There is no real characterisation, but, in this case, there doesn’t need to be. The lack of dialogue from Nolan’s shortest script lets the action be the true main character. The soldiers have little time to converse as they are thrust from one dramatic moment to another and there is little character motivation beyond survival, but this just ramps up the pace and gives that film that race against time feel. If, like me, you get swept up in it all, then this all works perfectly and it really pulls you in. However, those who failed to be fully immersed (likely through no fault of their own) will instead be looking for more a traditional film narrative and will find it lacking, hence some of the poorer reviews the film has received.
It has been said by so many people, but it needs repeating: to get the most out of Dunkrik, you must see it on the best and biggest screen available. Shot mostly on large format cameras, this film was made to be seen in IMAX. The vastness of the sea and vulnerable landscape of the beach look stunning as they take up the whole screen. Sound is also extremely important. Although Hans Zimmer has created another powerful and memorable score, it was the sound effects that really stole the show. The startling crack of gunshots and terrifying screeching of bombers making a dive are almost painfully loud and unlike anything else I’ve heard in a cinema, making you feel like you are there on the beach. I honestly think I’ll never forget the sound of the very first gunshot I heard in the opening scene.
Nolan loves playing with time and he does it again here, delivering three separate takes (land, sea, and air) of the evacuation over three separate timelines. It works well to tie the peaks of tension, faced by each seperate character, together, and it isn’t a challenge to follow. Like his previous films, Dunkirk requires your complete attention, but if you see it on the big screen it’ll be unlikely you even think about anything else for its runtime.
Although comparisons to classic war films, particularly Saving Private Ryan, are being made, Dunkirk reminded me most of BBC documentary series Our War. The series utilise real footage of combat, shot by the soldiers themselves, and it bears a striking resemblance to the depiction of battle in the film. It isn’t all guts flying everywhere and the enemy is nowhere to be seen, just heard due to the deadly gunfire. Dunkirk certainly feels like the most accurate depiction of warfare, and it helps that there is no glorification whatsoever, it is simply shown as a horrific experience.
Despite my Mum being served an almost frozen jacket potato for lunch (Picturehouse Bradford – your cinema may be state of the art, but your microwaves are clearly not), nothing could stop us from being grabbed and pulled in by Nolan’s utterly mesmerising survival thriller. If viewed as a film that is meant to deliver dramatic narrative told through engaging characters, Dunkirk does fall short. However, this is not how it should be viewed. Dunkirk is a pure cinematic experience that is meant to chuck you head first into the freezing waves and shows you first-hand what so many young men had to endure. When viewed as this immersive experience, there is simply nothing better.