The thing that makes Dunkirk so good is that there is not an ounce of fat on this thing. There is no backstory. There are no cutaways to flustered generals in London or Berlin trying to figure out their next move. There are no longing, sad relatives at home staring longingly into the middle distance, wondering if and when their loved one is coming home from the front. Dialogue is sparse, and almost entirely functional – not a word of it seems expository. There are no grand ‘actorly’ moments.
This is a film which captures both a moment in time, and the spirit which then, and since then, encapsulated that moment – the notion of a very British Pyrrhic defeat.
This is also a masterclass in cinematic technique – film making which captures your attention, starts with an aching tension and does not relent for the duration of its surprising and blessedly short 106 minutes. Writer-director Christopher Nolan does not stage spectacular action set pieces, just short, gripping sequences designed to deliver a nigh-on-palpable sense of urgency, dread, terror, and often helplessness. A short, harsh sequence involving a torpedo hitting a ship – and the aftermath of this – is technically stunning and devastating to watch. Harrowing, to say the least.
The film’s visual effects are superb; the practical effects and sets are seamlessly woven into CGI trickery – to the point where you can’t see the lines blurred. The sound mix is incredible, with the echoes of Luftwaffe planes providing menace, as with the screams of their descending bombs. Hans Zimmer’s score is underplayed, and resonates with a visceral tick-tick-tick. It’s not over edited, over produced or over- anything, for that matter. It’s shot in drab, muted tones, so even amid the carnage we don’t pause to reflect on the beauty of the horizon. One of the sole representations of colour are the red smears of jam on some white bread, and it forebodes something horrendous on its own.
Tom Hardy has a few moments as a dashing British fighter pilot providing air cover for his comrades down below, and further credit to Nolan, is depicted missing more targets than he hits (we’re allowed to walk away from this thing knowing that shooting moving objects in the sky without computer aid is a trifle hard). The cast is wall-to-wall superb, but Dunkirk isn’t a film rife with star turns – Hardy spends most of the film with half his face covered; the always good Mark Rylance has a furrowed determination about what needs to be done and just bloody well does it; Kenneth Branagh has a moment or two to look the classic naval officer, but errs to understatement, to his credit.
The tension that Spielberg brought to the opening act of Saving Private Ryan, or Clint Eastwood depicted in his pair of Iwo Jima films in 2006 have their moment in the sun, but this seminal moment in the annals of WWII history shall, should, will be forever linked now to this mightily impressive work. It’s probably the best film Christopher Nolan has made, and will doubtlessly be up there with the best films of the year.