Visionary filmmaker Christopher Nolan has carved a career out of writing and directing imaginative movies, telling mind-bending tales in a way that only he can. His latest feature marks a departure of sorts as he turns his attention to World War II for action-drama Dunkirk, telling the story of the Operation Dynamo evacuation in 1940. As Allied soldiers including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) are trapped on the beach to await their fate from surrounding Nazi forces, fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) provide cover from the skies. Meanwhile, mariner Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) embark on a brave civilian rescue mission.
As the narrative is divided into three intersecting timelines based across land, sea and air, the intelligently woven structure allows us to witness warfare from varying perspectives. The men are made to look small and insignificant against the vastness of the rich landscapes, stunningly captured on 70mm IMAX. The aerial shots from within Spitfire cockpits are particularly breath-taking. Despite the wide-open spaces, the film achieves an increasingly unnerving atmosphere of claustrophobic dread as the enemy looms from all sides, and Zimmer’s excellent score intensifies this, building heart-stopping suspense throughout. Within the desperate solitude, there are fleeting moments of uplifting solidarity full of British fighting spirit, and this magnifies the importance of seeing this crucial time in our history as a nation on the biggest of screens.
There’s no obvious leading actor in the ensemble cast that has a healthy mix of veteran talent, established Nolan collaborators and fresh-faced debutants. Like the characters they portray, they are in it together, all for one and one for all. Whitehead and Styles express a compelling combination of vulnerability and courage, and thrive in a rare dialogue-driven sequence when conflict breaks out amongst the troops. Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy also do stellar jobs with very little to say, as stoic pilot and shell-shocked shivering soldier respectively. There are too many great performances to mention them all, each carrying out their duties with the necessary aptitude to give the piece the authenticity it needs to succeed.
Dunkirk is war cinema at its most epic, perfectly showcasing Christopher Nolan’s supreme ability as a director as well as his storytelling gift of depicting intimacy on the grandest of scales. Aside from the phenomenal technical achievement, perhaps his most cunning trick is in presenting an undeniably emotional experience without the sentimentality that it often associated with the genre. The film never forgets the peril at its beating heart, and the overwhelming sense of fear it creates grips from the first immersive frame to the last, and will leave a powerful lasting impact.