Whenever Christopher Nolan announces a movie, it is something that movie buffs await with bated breath. After having dealt with insomnia, magic, superheroes, dreams and space, he has now turned his sight towards Hollywood’s favourite and dependable subject, when they ran out of good ones – World War II. His latest cinematic venture is Dunkirk, a fictional retelling of a lesser told chapter in World War history. Now we have some really good movies in the war genre, courtesy Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and of course, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Does Dunkirk join these ranks of being one of the greatest war movies ever made? Bloody Hell, it does!
What’s it about
The movie revolves around the army evacuation of the Allied soldiers at the Dunkirk beach during World War II, when Germany was having an upper hand over UK and France. The evacuation is shown through four different perspectives. First one is through one English soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who desperately tries to escape from the beach along with two other soldiers, a silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Then there is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) who is overseeing the evacuation but is frustrated to see the rescue ships being destroyed by the enemies. Third subplot centres around one of the rescue trawlers commissioned by UK to save the soldiers. The boat is captained by one Dawson (Mark Rylance), along with his son and his friend. On the way to Dunkirk, they rescue a lone survivor (Cillian Murphy) from a sunken U-boat who suffers from PTSD. The final track is about Farrier (Tom Hardy) a gutsy pilot who has two enemies to fight – enemy planes and a depleting fuel.
I will start with a disclaimer – I am a huge fan of Nolan and his movies, even if a couple of them did fall short of my huge expectations (The Prestige and Interstellar). However, even without any personal bias, I can say this movie is a cinematic achievement that will change how people make war movies in future. Never has a movie in recent times so completely absorbed me in its proceedings as Dunkirk has, and I can’t even say I relished every minute of that. For this is not that sort of chest-thumping movie that will make you punch your fist in the air. At one hour 46 minutes, this could be Nolan’s shortest film (correct me if I am wrong here), and every minute of it leaves you breathless. And I mean it literally. Like the characters of this movie, even you would be gasping for air at the many claustrophobic moments in the narrative. Believe me, there are plenty. In short, Dunkirk is one nerve-racking experience that you should only go through in IMAX (it’s not in 3D, thankfully, because that gimmick isn’t needed here).
Unlike other movies of this genre, Dunkirk doesn’t rely on sensationalism or gore to terrify, and yet it is the most horrifying movie on war that I have ever seen, even without much visual representation of the blood count. Even the brief moments of calm is unnerving because you know something bad is around the corner (and your instinct is right, most of the times). Nolan doesn’t give any of the characters any kind of backstory, save for a little insight at one of the characters’ past towards the end. The main characters, despite without given a prior background, are all well-etched and easily relatable. What is more frustrating about the plight of our protagonists, is that their home is not too far away (one character says, they can even see their country from the beach), and yet help is not easily available. Unlike other war movies, the enemy here has no faces – we know that they are Germans, but they are represented by well-timed gunshots and explosions, an idea more unnerving than showing a real face. Like Nolan’s classic Memento, the movie doesn’t follow a linear pattern, which springs a surprise on you at certain junctures of the movie.
Technically, the movie is on par with the best of Hollywood. Nolan may have achieved a technical marvel with Interstellar, but it’s here where all the factors gel well. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is amazeballs, especially in how they shot all those aerial plane fights. Speaking of which, Dunkirk boasts of the best plane fighting sequences I have ever seen in a movie. The sound editing is Oscar-worthy, making us feel we are right in the middle of the attack. Hans Zimmer’s background is another winner, his score in the movie is what John Williams did to Jaws.
Speaking of the performances, every actor in the role fits their character perfectly, and I am glad that Nolan chose a mix of veteran and newcomers as a part of the cast. Debutante Fionn Whitehead has a confident start; he is our eyes in the movie. One Direction fans will be glad to know that Harry Styles hasn’t disappointed at all, he has a promising career in acting ahead. In fact he reminded me of a younger Johnny Depp at times. Tom Hardy is again relegated behind a mask after The Dark Knight Rises, but he lets his eyes do the talking. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy were all brilliant in their roles.
I really didn’t find any major flaws, apart from a few dialogues which sounded clunky (Nolan’s major weakness). Also those expecting a conventional war drama like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon may find Dunkirk a very unconventional experience (though it isn’t a bad idea at all!).
What to do
Someone asked me if Dunkirk is better than Nolan’s The Dark Knight or Memento. I fairly had no clue how to answer him, and I really don’t want to. For Dunkirk is not a movie that begs for comparison, it is a flick immerses you into its proceedings and leaves you enthralled at the end of it. It is a gritty, rivetting revisiting of one of the darkest chapters of modern history, that will leave you gasping at times. Dunkirk may or may not be the best war movie ever made, but it is definitely the best blockbuster of the year. Highly recommended, that too in IMAX.
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