I didn’t love Dunkirk because it’s a Christopher Nolan film and so I must love it. I loved it because it’s an exceptional piece of film making. It’s in many ways not a war film as it is totally devoid of many key ingredients of a war film. It is more of a claustrophobic and highly affecting survival thriller that unfolds in the backdrop of Dunkirk evacuations and hence it takes over the look and feel of a war film. With this film, Nolan has yet again gone against all pre-conceived and pre-established notions and checklists of a particular genre and created something that is truly and refreshingly different.
The Dunkirk evacuation was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, during World War II. The operation was decided upon when large numbers of British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were cut off and surrounded by the Wehrmacht (German Army) during the Battle of France
Dunkirk is holding about 400,000 men stranded without the amenities to reach home that they can practically see from the shores. The enemy is inching closer with every possible second. As the men desperately try to make their way of the shore we are presented with some gut wrenching drama resulting out of situations that not only questions the humanity and rationality of the men but also shows us the extent of heroism that common men are capable of.
The film unfolds in three segments. It may also be said that the same story is seen through three different perspectives. 1. The Mole : This segment unfolds on the land and chronicles events across a week. 2. The Sea : This segment unravels throughout a day and relates the exploits of the civilian boats who are on their way to rescue the men from Dunkirk. 3. The Sky : This segment takes place throughout an hour and is seen through the eyes of the pilots who are trying to defend the men on Dunkirk from enemy Arial attacks.
Dunkirk is a technical marvel. I haven’t seen a film of this large scale with so little CGI in a while now. The film boasts of thousands of real men and women and they are able to suck you into the drama with the kind of heart that no CG can. The film practically starts and ends amidst war. The first following shot of one of the protagonists running through a part of town and into the beach sets up the mood for the rest of the film.
The manner in which the action unfolds and the amount of tension that it generates nearly gave me a heart attack. The sinking of the first ship and then another is shown with such grit and realism that I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the power of the visual and the man who had the audacity to think of it. The dogfight sequences involving the real Spitfire planes were another high point of the film. It was thrilling to watch the action unfold mostly from the point of view of the planes and the pilots. We have seen dog fights so many times before but never before has the milieu been used to this good effect and with such finesse.
If you get the chance to look beyond the drama and tension, which I don’t think you will, what you will find in terms of acting and performances will leave nothing to displease you. Tom Hardy acts through his eyes. Once again Nolan closes up his face completely with an oxygen mask and this time for real reasons. There is such a sense of urgency and involvement in his act that you will be exasperated by what you see on screen.
Fionn Whitehead is a little-known actor but he comes up with such an engrossing act in the company of another little-known actor, Damien Bonnard, who barely speaks a sentence throughout the film, that you cannot help but be overtaken by their acts. It must be noted that the action and techniques would account for nothing if the drama and the fear of dying on Dunkirk were not brought out for real. That’s what is achieved through their acts. They help transpose the fear and the anxiety of the men on the beach to the audiences.
Some of the best actors of our times like Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh work beautifully in tandem with the lesser-known faces. The choices are understandable. Nolan evidently wanted new and fresh faces that could be sold without any priors just as the little-known privates on Dunkirk while the powerhouses would be the significant anchors grounding all the other performances which is achieved without a hiccup.
There will be many who would question the non-existence of a story and the totally action driven screenplay but you have to understand that this is a film that was meant to be like this. There isn’t a single sequence wherein we have the soldiers talking about their homes and families and trying to get our attention. This is a film more interested in their fears than their sentimentalities. This isn’t a film which wants to get you to love these men or get involved in their lives. What it wants is to thrill and grip you with a short story on a brief portion of the evacuation of the Dunkirk and the ordeal of the men and women involved in it. Once you start looking at the film from that perspective, it makes more sense.
The cinematography as mentioned before is phenomenal. Hoyte Van Hoytema is no stranger to creating dense, frigid and morose ambiances and he brings his undeniable flair to this film. The whole film is so eerie and brief sequences are so heavy on your sense that the tension and the anxiety of the settings quickly get transferred to you which further envelops you into the narrative. The background score aids in this too.
Dunkirk is a film that has to be seen multiple times to be able to comprehend fully. It isn’t the best war film ever made for the simple reason that it isn’t inspiring. It’s just not meant to be. I, however, want my war films to be goosebump inducing and inspiring which it is not. But that in no way can deny the fact that it is a surrealistic experience of the highest order. You don’t have to be a Nolan fan to love this. It’s simple, it’s straightforward and it’s engrossing. From the point it starts till the point it ends, the film holds on to your attention. It will make you hold your breath. Watch Dunkirk for sure if you haven’t already and watch it multiple times.
Rating 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)