THERE are not many directors working today who can be trusted to deliver a World War Two movie with a production budget of $100 million.
One is though and it is Christopher Nolan who brings a who’s who cast of young and veteran actors for Dunkirk, a highly suspenseful and brilliantly scored piece that makes for the rare summer blockbuster that stands amongst the year’s finest films.
Divided into three sections, this tale of the 1940 mission to rescue 400,000 soldiers from the northern France beaches interweaves The Mole (one week), The Sea (one day) and the Air (one hour).
Here, Nolan edits with competent breakneck speed and increasing tension from differing perspectives, ranging from stranded soldier to civilian rescuers to aerial assaulters.
As the film gets underway, almost immediately we observe characters in a state of peril, making for The Mole.
A group of soldiers are one-by-one gunned down. Of that group, only one, Tommy (Fionn Whiteread) manages to make it over to the French. Upon arriving at the beach, Tommy attempts to find a way to board the boats with the help of another, desperately assisting injured servicemen and being forcefully turned away by boats on the verge of capsize along the way.
In The Sea, a fishing boat piloted by Dawson (Mark Rylance) and accompanied by his son and an unassuming friend travel from Weymouth right into the middle of the chaos in Dunkirk to rescue those stranded. Whilst travelling, they encounter a shell-shocked solider from a sunk vessel whose fears and insistences result in tragedy amongst the rescuers.
Finally, as if Nolan hasn’t spoilt us enough by then, we observe the point-of-views of those engaging in aerial combat in The Air, specifically two pilots played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, where the unpredictability of their predicaments is all too clear.
Nolan is, along with James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and maybe JJ Abrams, the only director working today who can frequently get an original project greenlit with a budget often reserved for franchise fare.
Demonstrating the knack for the war genre in the way he did for the superhero genre with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Nolan delivers intensity at its most genuine, tension at its most heart-pounding and fear at its most evident.
From the get-go, the film becomes an assault on the senses, notably audibly, taking no prisoners with its non-graphic but frightening scenes of soldiers being picked off systematically and emphasising on the survivor’s desperate attempts to run those few yards to supposed safety.
We are occasionally led to believe that characters are in safe harmony having been rescued by ships where voluntary nurses are on hand, only for torpedoes and passing aircraft to appear out of nowhere ready on hand to leave safety from secure. Never more does Nolan put the frighteners on in a chilling scene in which an aircraft pilot upon crash-landing in the sea finds himself trapped in his seating area, with the seawater gradually filling.
Recruiting an ensemble cast of actors ranging from young newcomers to veteran alumni of the theatrical stage, all ought to be credited for adding to the realism and conviction of what lies around them. Whiteread as the survivor caught up in chaos, Rylance as the determined civilian ready to endanger his life, Cillian Murphy as the traumatised solider rescued by Rylance’s everyman, Kenneth Branagh as the sceptical commander, Tom Hardy as the static but essential fighter pilot, even Harry Styles does a respectful job in his panic-stricken state.
A Saving Private Ryan this is not, given this one is a 12A, which Nolan clearly keeps in mind as he depicts scenes early on where individuals taking cover are blown up on the beach. Rather than documenting the expected blood and guts we have become accustomed to viewing in modern war cinema, instead we see bodies coated in smoke and sand landing hard in the direction of the cowering Tommy.
Like the closing third of The Dam Busters, the film restricts itself to conflict, destruction, survival and eventually safety for all its 106 minutes, placing itself as action-packed from start to finish, no exaggeration. If one believes they learnt all they needed to know about Dunkirk from the virtuoso tracking shot in the 2007 classic Atonement, one can think again upon seeing this.
Here, viewers hardly get a chance to sit comfortably before more danger erupts on our heroes and what makes this film succeed is the refusal to halt the intensity. This is clarified by the film’s harrowing but necessary score from regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, wholly deserving of yet another Oscar for his work that carries on from beginning to end, often welcoming whenever long stretches of dialogue go unheard.
In fact, it is more than just the score that deserves mention at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. It would be hard-pressing to think of a film more worthy for its sound effects, whether an approaching aircraft or sudden gunshots. Furthermore, it would be downright insulting if this film was not to at least appear as a nominee in the Best Picture category and maybe even if Nolan fails to secure his first nomination as a director.
We do live in uncertain times but if Brexit Britain has learnt anything so far, its that British cinema really does stand out as world-class. Like we have seen with indie fare this year such as Lady Macbeth and The Levelling, if a blockbuster such as Dunkirk tells us anything, it’s that we have a lot to be proud of when it comes to our cinema.