Leaving the cinema after watching Dunkirk, you’d forgive your brain for thinking that you had just gotten off a rollercoaster. The relentless pace at which the movie depicts the frightening realities of war is as thrilling an experience — if not the biggest thrill — offered by any war movie to date. And it isn’t exactly your typical war movie either: when Nolan first came up with the idea, the only question he was concerned with broaching was, “will they get out of it?”. Dunkirk, therefore, lends itself more to the survival thriller genre — one that just happens to take place during WWII.
Dunkirk is certainly an experience. And one made far more intense when watched in IMAX on the giant screen whilst suffering very loud, ear bleeding explosions. The film is more concerned with its style and devices than presenting any deep characterization or plot — like Nolan says, “the empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story”. It’s as though the movie has its own agenda and purpose, one that doesn’t follow the traditional route often penned by previous blockbuster war films; one that simply reveals the horror of war; and through witnessing for ourselves the glaring reality of it, we become stirred and moved in ways characterisation and drama could never achieve.
It is as though witnessing a spectacle — one that is accompanied by that gut wrenching feeling you get when you see an accident in real life. Nolan’s mastery is in the way he tells the story solely of the act of war and human survival, offering only a purely visual and auditory experience — or rather an ordeal of the highest order, with which we share but can only sit aghast and transfixed.
Utilizing his signature ‘snowballing’ technique created by Hans Zimmer, the pace and intensity of the screen are matched only by the immediacy and sublimity of its soundtrack — just like how the Nolan/Zimmer collaboration worked in Interstellar and Inception, only this time the build up of tension towards a final crescendo is not reserved ultimately for the finale but played throughout the entire movie.
Zimmer’s soundtracks of late are as notorious as the movies they help render. And Dunkirk is no exception — in fact, it’s his best to date. Using the same device employed in Inception — that of the ticking clock — Zimmer’s ethereal notes appear synonymous with the anguish felt by the soldiers at Dunkirk whilst simultaneously guiding our own emotions during the escapade. There is hardly any let up in the tension: reminiscent of the daunting, shrill wail in The Dark Knight, the music at times resembles an aggressive siren repeatedly going off whenever there is panic on screen.
And as for the more delicate, sentimental moments expected towards the end: I found that I wasn’t mistaken when I thought I heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Zimmer slowed down the classical piece to give it more gravitas, in what can perhaps be seen as yet another nod to Kubrick; Nolan’s favourite director used classical composers in 2001, and Dunkirk’s version of Enigma even has the same reverberated ending effect as 2001’s title track, Thus Spake Zarathustra — furthering Nolan’s previous obsession with the movie and his constant attempts to replicate it.
The soundtrack works most impressively with the cinematography of the movie, created by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Van Hoytema — responsible for the awe inspiring scenes in Interstellar — manages to recreate Dunkirk’s sense of scale with breathtaking beach panoramas. The lack of CGI effects also contribute to the authenticity of the portrayal: real Spitfires were used (cockpit shots were shot in planes mocked up to look like the iconic plane because of the need to film from a rear seat) along with models of ships, battalions, and structures. The effect is a movie that feels real and dynamic, one that stands out from all the current fake looking and specious blockbuster bilges.
One of the other devices noticeable about Dunkirk is the way in which Nolan uses the camera. From the opening scene we are taken for a cinematic ride via the use of handheld; used for the very first time in an IMAX movie. This technique used expertly by Speilberg in Schindler’s List is Nolan’s most effective tool in bringing the chaos of Dunkirk and its story to the big screen. It helps connect us to the journey of the film’s main lead, Fionn Whitehead, an unknown British actor who gives an effortless performance with his portrayal of a young man fighting for survival.
The rest of the actors playing the lead role of the British Army are also largely unheard of — with the exception of Harry Styles, although you’d barely recognise him. Kenneth Branagh makes an appearance, along with fellow British legend Mark Rylance, adding some recognisable experience to the faces of the elder British characters.
However, for all the realism invoked by Nolan’s filmic devices, one cannot help but wonder about some of the movie’s notable inaccuracies. Tom Hardy — who is also hardly recognisable til the end — flies around for the best part of 3 hours with a seemingly inexhaustive amount fuel and manages to land on a beach with his plane’s undercarriage. There’s no way the Spitfire could have allowed for that, nor the way it was able to shoot rounds of ammo for more than 90 seconds. Also, the evacuation is ostensibly placed under the auspices of British civilian boats; while this did occur, the evacuation of 400,000 men was not down to 100 or so willing participants of a supplementary excursion — no matter how nostalgic and empowering it may seem as a sentiment.
There’s lots of tea drinking, frequent English colloquialisms and a lack of Indian faces from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. But English patriotism is a rare breed, indeed, and perhaps in this day and age of Hollywood’s bombastic American horn blowing there is room for a little British nostalgia. Dunkirk is, despite these slight oversights, a film that will come to be known as a revelation in the war movie; a damning insight into man’s most destructive but necessary conflict.