With Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan, who also wrote this project, scales cinematic heights that’s as startling as it is audacious. In Dunkirk, Nolan devours the screen edaciously, opening up the wormhole of his vision to you – no screen size on this planet is enough to encompass this spectacular vision, but for now, we’ll have to make do with an IMAX – embracing you and ensconcing you, and you alone in the cinema hall. The hall might be full (as it was in my show), but never before would you have felt as lonely and terrified as you will in Dunkirk.
For, this isn’t a war movie. Not in the sense of all the classic war movies you’d have seen up until now. Sure, it’s based on the true story of Operation Dynamo, set in World War II, with the events between 26th May up until 4th June, 1940 unfolding into what would be one of the largest evacuations of soldiers during a war. That in itself is a story waiting to be told. But with Nolan’s magnificent talent, the movie tells the story not from a war perspective, where soldiers are shooting at each other, delivering a great escape; it, instead, tells the story of the men and women who fought for survival, and those who actually survived the harrowing events on Dunkirk beach, France.
Closed in on all flanks by the Germans in the Battle of France, the allied forces of Britain, France, Belgium, and Canada are stuck in the town and beach of Dunkirk, and are looking to be evacuated by their brothers in arms, even as Prime Minister Churchill wants his army brought back home – in his words, post the operation, “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk. Using this story palette, Nolan recreates the chilling drama of the Dunkirk evacuation, employing a story-telling technique that’s caked in three layers – one, from the land, on the mole, the second, from the sea, and the third in the air. Each layer has its set of characters, their traumas, set to differently unfolding timelines – the mole has a week’s timeline, the sea has a day, while the air has an hour. And in a brilliant masterstroke, the director, while flitting across each layer’s story, uses a non-linear technique that covers their timelines, and then, in a stunning scene, converges all three layers into a moving, sweeping masterpiece of story-telling that forever resets the template for movie makers.
Dunkirk works on multiple layers, stuns your senses at every level possible, and then some. Every scene that cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoots is a work of art, and not just visually, even though that’s there too. From terrifying claustrophobia in a ship that goes underwater to a boat that’s filled with soldiers waiting for the tide to come in, and then is shot at; to the air fights, where, with Nolan and the RAF fighter pilots, you soar, plunge, soar, crash, and land, where despite the awning sky and sea, despite the overwhelming space and horizon, you feel as boxed in as the pilots as their Spitfires spew ammunition, even as they avoid being hit by the enemy planes. There’s the sprawling beach that’s not big enough to house the terror that the trapped soldiers feel, even as the tide brings in bodies.
Not just the visuals, but every detail that Nolan lays out hits you, drags you into the drama. The epic is in the details, as is the human factor. Never before has a large-scale movie zoomed into the visceral emotions of the characters it portrays. This, to reiterate, isn’t a war movie. It’s a true-to-life portrayal of what every soldier, pilot, and sailor feels, as they tumble into war. Dunkirk doesn’t objectify valor as do most war-based movies. Not here will you see supreme sacrifices being made; instead, the clamor amongst soldiers is to get out, survive, and escape – almost at any cost. Nolan dunks you into this bile-rising human reaction that doesn’t discriminate, that rises in every hero, and in that sense, every man that fights in a war is one – more human than hero. You feel the chills and the gut-wrenching fear, and you want out, but not before knowing what happens to the soldiers, what happens to you, for you’ve become part of the scenes, the only sense of gemutlich when the soldiers chomp on a slice of bread adorned with jam – and you know that’s temporary too. As the enemy strikes again and again, in all the movie’s run time, you don’t ever see the German soldiers – and that feeling is what every soldier goes through – a nameless fear of the faceless enemy.
Choke on that feeling then, as at another level, the sound whacks and thwacks at your senses, making you want to duck for cover – from the first gun-shot that pierces your right side, and makes you jump in your seat, to the horrifying screeching of the enemy planes that announce the arrival of more bombs and devastation – when the beach is bombed, the camera puts you right on the ground level, leaving you shaken and stirred – sound mixer Mark Weingarten, sound effect recordists Peter Albrechtsen, John P. Fasal, Eilam Hoffman, Ken Johnson, and team, sound editors Michael W. Mitchell and Randy Torres, and the entire team – tie you to the screen and thrust you right into it.
At another level, composer Hans Zimmer scores a track that’s sheer magnum opus, and yet is part of the script, part of the story, an actor with a character of its own. Right from the opening scene, his background score is non-stop, not pausing for a moment, up until the final ten seconds or so of the movie. Every note, every instrument is a telling drama, orchestrating your emotions in the same way the director does. Note the single cello that veers into territories unknown, traversing between hopelessness to life-threatening warning; the violins and synthesizers slamming your very being, making every moment and the next to come so very ominous; or in scenes where he synthesizes the ticking of the stopwatch (Nolan sent across the sound of his personal stopwatch for Zimmer to use) that foretells of time running out, as in the aforementioned scene of soldiers trapped in a boat, waiting for the tide to come in. Hans Zimmer gives Dunkirk that unknown, undefined feeling in your gut, and yet gives it notes that were dormant inside of you, them of whose existence you didn’t know before now.
Director Nolan uses some of the real-life Little Ships of Dunkirk that brave civilians lent out or set out in, to rescue their country’s soldiers; he also employs real-life warships for the sea battles; and, he employs actors – all, upon his insistence, from the British Isles – who are so very effective and affecting at yet another level.
There’s Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a British private, his act a beautiful trapeze of innocence wire-walking selfish survival instincts; Aneurin Barnard as Gibson, who hardly speaks, but whose eyes are determined to escape this horror; Pop star Harry Styles as Alex, forming up the trio with Tommy and Gibson; James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant, his eyes hiding the very same horrors with a mysterious shield that is so very seductive; Cillian Murphy as the Shivering Soldier, whose trauma surpasses his heroic instincts, and who also inadvertently sets off another tragedy, the knowledge of which another civilian – Peter, played with a beautiful inner strength by Tom Glynn-Carney – hides from him; Mark Rylance, playing Mr Dawson, a mariner and Peter’s father – the actor showing how courage can be so tough and yet so soft, so determined and yet so endearing; Jack Lowden as Collins an RAF pilot, and Tom Hardy his partner in another plane, the latter whose face you don’t see until the devastating end; and Kenneth Branagh who plays pier-master Commander Bolton – a caring and tough-master act – and when on his face, you see a flicker as the enemy war planes come screeching in, you know there’s something familiar about that expression.
And then you realize, it’s an expression that unites us all during traumatic times, an expression that’s as universal as any human emotion, an expression that ought to have united us, but is the one that still drives pernicious activities everywhere. It’s an expression you’re wearing all through Dunkirk. An expression you’d want to go to the cinema hall and wear on your face again. And again.
Dunkirk is rated U/A (unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below the age of twelve). There’s scary war scenes, not bloody. And the Indian censor board has cleaned out all cuss words, bless them for their cinematic mouthwash.
Director Christopher Nolan Running Time 1h 46 min
Writer Christopher Nolan
Stars Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh
Genres Action, Drama, History
Watch the trailer of Dunkirk here: