After what seemed like an age for me to get around to being able to see this film I finally managed it, and on an IMAX screen too, a rare treat in the past (but with a screen recently opened in Cambridge there might be a few more trips in the offing!).
Dunkirk tells the story of the British soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk awaiting being shipped back to Blighty whilst the German forces close in on them from all sides. In terms of premise it is a pretty simple one, but this film is a shining example of a simple idea done superbly well. Split into three separate, non-linear but overlapping perspectives – from the land (told over a week), from the sea (told over a day) and from the air (told over an hour) – we are treated to a masterclass in tension. The land perspective follows the trials of a young private, Tommy, as he attempts to make his way, alongside a couple of other young soldiers, off the beach and back home. The sea perspective charts the story of Mr Dawson, and his son Peter and their civilian boat Moonstone, as they are commandeered by the Navy to set sail for Dunkirk to bring the soldiers back, but rather than submitting their craft to the Navy they take it out themselves to do their part for the effort. The third perspective is told from the air as we follow a small Spitfire squadron as they are making their way across the Channel to assist the effort and protect the many thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach as they are being picked off by the ruthless German airforce. With dual threats from Luftwaffe enemies and ever decreasing fuel we are left to marvel at what is realistically a superbly heroic effort from all involved, especially Farrier (Hardy). Again the story places all the emphasis on the tension of the situation, more about the effort to survive than any gain or advantage. A lack of loss being deemed a win in these instances.
With a lesser amount of dialogue than his previous films the atmosphere is transmitted through the action but most tellingly through the astounding score. Hans Zimmer has crafted a soundstage that just keeps ramping up the intensity whenever something happens on screen, which is pretty much any time after the first minute has passed. The audible onslaught is as unwavering as the German waves of artillery, bombers and torpedoes as they thwart the attempts of the British armed forces to evacuate.
The ensemble cast, to name a few amongst the very many actors and extras, consist of such heavyweights as Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy alongside some less well known in the acting world, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard. All play their parts really well, especially in my opinion Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, making their presence felt whenever they are on screen, but in fairness all put in some great work to bring this film to life.
I’ve already spoken about the aural effects of this film but it cannot be understated how much this affects the film itself. Hoyte van Hoytema, apart from having the greatest name ever, depicts the stresses and strains of the efforts wonderfully well. With sweeping aerial shots of the largeness of the beach itself alongside claustrophobic close-ups of soldiers trapped below deck, to some fantastic angles portraying listing and sinking ships it all adds to the assault on the senses, disrupting the norm and making you feel uneasy. Coupled with the tension-mounting score and you are onto a winner.
Last but not least we come to Christopher Nolan. As both writer and director of the film he has to take the lions share of responsibility and rightly so he should. This is an absolutely superb piece of cinema and he should receive any plaudits that come his way. The scale of the effort is portrayed from the moment that young Tommy walks onto the beach and doesn’t stop until the closing credits. Pulling together the visuals, the story and layering on the score, this is one of the best films of the year without a doubt. I wasn’t sure about Interstellar, visually it was impressive but everything else left me a bit cold. This is a different kettle of fish altogether; urgent and compelling but at it’s heart a story of survival, pulling together and heroism.