“Dunkirk” lays bare the futility and often pointless destruction of warfare. While this may not be the most original angle for a war film with the recent focus on heroism and the glorification of conflicts seen in many American efforts within the genre over the last decade “Dunkirk” is a sobering reminder of just how horrific war really is. There’s no triumphant climax where the “bad guys” are defeated and the heroes bask in their victory, in fact towards the end one of the film’s cast remarks that all they’ve done is survived and they’ve not won anything, but that’s the whole point of “Dunkirk” it’s the most human war movie in nearly two decades.
Director and writer Christopher Nolan makes several bold decisions with his latest feature. Firstly the setting is one not really explored on the silver screen, after all the Battle for Dunkirk is not a victory for the allies but a retreat. There’s not a single cut away to stuffy smoke filled rooms with commanders making plans and arguing over tactics, which succeeds in making the audience feel most closely involved in the events. Nolan also chooses to never show a German solider on screen, which serves only to make them all the more threatening, when a Nazi plane flies over head there’s a sense of foreign terror on the soldiers faces and the audience feels this too.
While the movie is clearly split into three different arcs, there’s very little focus placed on either characters or more traditional plot developments. This will undoubtedly turn some viewers away, as there’s not really a central set of characters to keep you invested, but it’s a clear artistic decision from Nolan. This again reinforces the notion of meaningless death during war, many characters die but even the ones that feature throughout the movie aren’t known to the audience, they’re just another face in the thousands that tragically never got home from the Dunkirk beach.
This approach could well have been a disaster, without a fleshed out central character or deeper plot development it would have been easy for Nolan to have completely lost the audience’s attention halfway through. This is thankfully avoided due to the films wonderful pacing, clocking at comfortably under two hours (credits and all) there’s not time for the film’s structure to wear. Instead each scene feels like a small vignette and each one is consistently compelling.
In a movie without an emphasis on characters a few members of the cast do stand out regardless. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy all play their parts wonderfully even if their talents are probably a bit underutilised. The big triumph of “Dunkirk” is the surprise casting of Harry Styles. There were more than a few eyebrows raised when the former boyband member was cast in a World War II movie but he’s excellent in his role as a British solider trying to get off the beach anyway he can. “Dunkirk” is not an actor’s movie, and the limited focus on dialogue and characters means that we have yet to see Styles’ true acting range but based on the evidence here I’m genuinely excited to see him take on future roles.
Without a twisting narrative or complex characters to district the success of “Dunkirk” rests solely on Nolan’s directing abilities, and it’s no competition to say that this is his best made work to date. Between the tense claustrophobia of a sinking ship taking on water as men scramble to escape the hull to the heart pounding opening which sees British soldiers running through the streets of the French town as gunfire chases them each scene hits all the right notes. The sound design is especially noteworthy and the bombastic nature of the conflict is brought to life, “Dunkirk” is required viewing in a cinema setting and not anywhere else.
“Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s most confident work to date, and there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s also his best. It can at times be a tough watch, scores of innocent men are killed and the pointless of all this death is hammered home with cold conviction but the film also stands as a testament to their bravery and their ultimate sacrifice. The term “instant classic” is thrown around a lot these days, far too much in fact, but with “Dunkirk” there is no better description, this is a movie that will watched and appreciated for decades to come and it’s utterly deserving of such a fate.
Score - 9.5