The opening 20 minutes of Dunkirk are as visceral and arresting as the beach landings in Saving Private Ryan. The difference is that, unlike Spielberg, Christopher Nolan doesn’t relieve the tension – even for a moment – until the credits start to roll.
Everything from Hans Zimmer’s eerie and atonal score to Hoyte van Hoytema’s stark cinematography (made all the more terrifying when blown up to IMAX proportions) is designed to keep the viewer on a knife-edge. This is a time bomb that detonates in your face without warning and then keeps right on ticking.
Despite the sensory overload, the film paradoxically demands full use of the brain at all times (remember who we’re talking about, after all). The three different stories that make up the narrative take place over a week, a day and a single hour respectively, and Nolan weaves them in and out of each other with clockwork precision.
At first it feels like Nolan has drained Dunkirk of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’: the soldiers on the beach, little more than cannon fodder, aren’t burdened by tragic backstories or best girls waiting at home. But the cast delivers small, quietly powerful moments of real humanity; from the grim determination of Mark Rylance’s civilian sailor to Harry Styles’ surprisingly affecting turn as a young soldier who cracks under the pressure. Even Kenneth Branagh, who’s given little more to do than gaze wistfully at England just over the horizon, gives it his all.
It’s hard to believe it’s taken Christopher Nolan – a director fascinated with dissecting the human condition – this long to make a war movie, but Dunkirk was worth the wait. It’s a stunning film that ranks among the best of both his own filmography and the genre as a whole.
CAST: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
WRITER: Christopher Nolan
SYNOPSIS: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.