Dunkirk wastes no time in getting the audience into the thrust of the tale. Based upon the events of May 1940 when Allied troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, the film follows three separate paths, one on land, one on sea and one in the air, as it plays over the dramatic events that took place. ‘The Mole’ follows a young British soldier trapped on the beaches, who meets and teams up with another soldier to try to obtain passage off the beach to safety. ‘The Sea’ follows Mr Dawson, his son, and his son’s friend as they join the rescue effort, taking his small sea-vessel over the waters to aid the soldiers in peril. ‘The Air’ follows three Spitfire pilots who are underway across the English Channel to provide air support to the troops waiting there. The three tales are told out of sequence, with occasional overlaps allowing us to see events from all three perspectives, as it builds up to one complete story.
Christopher Nolan has approached the subject matter in a respectful manner, and some of his film-making choices are extremely refreshing, making the film stand out as something quite staggering to watch, and unique in its nature. Gone are the tropes of any other war film – we are not given elaborate back-stories about girls left back home, or dreams of settling down after the war. No, the events themselves are the reason we should feel for the plight of those involved. No need for fake empathy when the harshness of the situation is presented so masterfully. In addition, Nolan’s increasing use of IMAX cameras to film have truly resulted in the most jaw-dropping moments on screen this year. None more so than the flying scenes with real Spitfires – the absolute beauty of those aircraft always thrilled me as a kid when I glued together Airfix kits, or drew pictures of them in flight. To see them on screen with not a glimmer of CGI to cheapen the shot is simply breath-taking, as they dogfight with Heinkels and Junkels….well!
Throughout the film there is a distinct lack of CGI, with Nolan preferring to use replicas, models, or (in the case of masses of soldiers) cardboard cut-outs. In addition there is also a lack of dialogue, and the little dialogue there is is buried under the rest of the sounds. This isn’t the first time Nolan has done this (Interstellar was notorious for complaints that dialogue couldn’t be heard), but it is certainly the most effective. Believing that a good story can be told without dialogue, the events on screen and the soundtrack can convey everything required, Nolan doesn’t use dialogue to tell us anything of vital importance unless it is absolutely necessary. Indeed, when you find yourself not quite hearing words being spoken due to the crashing of waves, or sound of gunfire or bombs, you can’t help but feel that the film has genuinely put you in the midst of the situation where those involved wouldn’t be able to hear everything being said either.
Sound is crucial to the film, and Nolan planned the film to run with a ticking sound layered into the background from start to finish, the cruciality of time ticking away. Zimmer’s score was built around this, and planned to build and escalate through the film, conveying the pressing urgency and peril. In doing so Zimmer has delivered one of his finest scores of all his career.
All of the elements are combined in a film which, whilst not Nolan’s best film, it is definitely his most impressive and impactful. This is a film which sticks with you long after it ends, and weighs upon your mind and heart. A spectacular vision based upon real events, Dunkirk is one of the finest war films the big screen has ever seen.