Dunkirk is not an easy film to review; it’s not, for that matter, an easy film to watch. Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature tells a very well-known story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940; it tells it, however, in a singular and powerful way.
The film opens with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) managing, somehow, to escape a sniper attack in the middle of the town of Dunkirk, and from this opening sequence, Nolan sets up a tone and mood of tension, terror and claustrophobia that do not let up for the entire film. due in no small part to Hans Zimmer’s keening, howling, pounding score, a largely atonal thing that complements and underpins the visuals. As the film unfolds, we meet Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander, Mark Rylance’s pleasure-boat captain, Cillian Murphy’s sailor rescued from a sinking wreck, characters who are almost secondary to the astonishingly visceral, profoundly intense visuals that drive the film — destroyers that are themselves destroyed, Spitfires that dodge and weave their way through the skies above the English Channel, destruction and death and terror.
Dunkirk is a powerful shock of a film. There is, in its hour and forty-two minutes, precious little dialogue; instead, the story unfolds through remarkable action sequences that, while extraordinary in their graphic, gruesome depictions of the horrors of war, the claustrophobia of drowning, the crushing dread of waiting for a bullet or a bomb, manage never to cross over into the gratuitous. Instead, Murphy’s shell-shocked sailor, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, Whitehead’s desperate soldier, each character serves to personalise the story being told.
And while the acting in Dunkirk does, largely, come in second place to the action, there are some quite outstanding performances. Cillian Murphy, despite having relatively little time on screen, is a standout, his utter shell-shocked despair wide-eyed and terrifying. Branagh manages to convey the desperation his commander feels, as his ships are bombed and sunk, with little more than a gaze at the horizon. And even Harry Styles, a surprising choice, shows that Nolan’s decision to cast a boy-band talent-show runner-up as Alex, a terrified young private, was quite well made.
Dunkirk represents a departure from Nolan’s previous work. The Prestige was an understated, cerebral adventure; Inception wanted nothing more than to mess with its audiences’ heads; Nolan’s Batman films were, let’s face it, superhero films. But Dunkirk is a broad, sweeping canvas on which Nolan has painted his most magnificent work yet.