Dunkirk is a series of personal tales during a pivotal moment in history

Dunkirk (2017) – Film review

Dunkirk film poster

Dunkirk film poster

In keeping with Christopher Nolan’s narrative device used in his telling of the Dunkirk story, I think you can sum this film up in the space of a paragraph or two by saying it’s a contender for film of the year – go forthwith and see Dunkirk on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system that you can.

I watched Dunkirk at the BFI IMAX in London’s Southbank – the single biggest screen of its kind in the UK – and it has the best sound system I have ever experienced in a cinema.

It’s one of only three cinemas in the country showing it in the immense 15/70mm IMAX format – you can see it at Vue Printworks in Manchester too – on a screen that will literally fill your field of view. The seats literally shook with the bass during several sequences during the film.

Couple that with the completely immersive massive IMAX screen (cinephiles can forget their 4K screens, the BFI was effectively a massive 18K resolution!) and I was feeling slightly sea sick, fearful of the siren scream from the Stuka dive bombers, and deafened by the bullets and explosions like many of the soldiers who waited for that trip back across the English Channel must have felt.

The visuals on an IMAX screen are so in-your-face that it’s like “virtual reality without the goggles” as Nolan himself has said of his first film based on real events. You have to respect the technical feat in getting an IMAX camera into the cockpit of a Spitfire or onto a small boat.

Hans Zimmer should also be applauded for adding his music score to the superb sound design, mixing a continually escalating sense of doom with a ticking pocket watch to proceedings while mixing in recognisable bits of Elgar at key moments and ramping up the tension with a screaming soundtrack that jars like a swooping Stuka.

Dunkirk, of course, was the culmination of an epic military failure which became a morale boosting war story as a combination of British and French forces evacuated from northern France using a flotilla of civilian boats helping Navy destroyers bring over 335,000 men home in 1940.

Thanks largely to a brave rearguard action by the French, British forces were given enough time to make the withdrawal to fight another day – defeat and capture of the majority of the British Expeditionary Forces would almost certainly have changed the course of the Second World War.

It’s a well told tale of courage in the face of adversity of which there’s been versions of over the years but comparatively little exposure of those events in recent years apart from a scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) and a major plot point in this year’s Their Finest.

There hasn’t been a full modern version of the story until now, with Christopher Nolan using his close working relationship with Warner Brothers to get his big budget retelling of a story he has long had in his mind off the ground.

Dunkirk stars a cadre of familiar stars from Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander overseeing the evacuation, Tom Hardy as an Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot in the skies above,  with Mark Rylance as a civilian captain and Cillian Murphy as a shellshocked soldier in one of the small pleasure cruisers with a largely unknown cast of men as the tommies on the beach.

I say unknown, but yes, Harry Styles – he of One Direction fame – does a good job in an understated and well earned acting debut as one of those soldiers on the beach as they try to get back to Britain.

The use of CGI is kept to a minimum, with everything done in-camera where possible which, if anything, helped the actors with their performances, knowing they weren’t looking at green screens or people holding up ping-pong balls.

Nolan has split up his vision of Dunkirk into three recognisable parts, intercutting between a week spent with soldiers on the beach desperately trying to get home, a day with the civilian captain of one of the pleasure cruisers sent to rescue the stranded soldiers and an hour with a trio of RAF Spitfires looking to provide cover for the soldiers and ships during evacuation with an ever diminishing supply of fuel.

In splitting up the story into different strands, we see how the tales interweave and intersect with differing points of view of the same events changing the emotional stakes for the viewer as our characters experience highs and devastating lows during the action.

Kenneth Branagh is given a fair amount of dialogue to sum up what’s going on from his point of view but this must be one of Nolan’s shortest films at under two hours – some of the best moments in the film are wordless looks both during intense action and lulls.

This is in part due to the fact that the majority of the film was shot in the IMAX format which means dialogue has to be re-recorded due to the noise from the huge and expensive cameras – but the immense tension generated by the editing and sound design mean that you’ll emerge from the cinema exhausted and relieved after what you’ve just seen.

There was heartfelt spontaneous applause from the audience at the end of my screening.

It’s great that an auteur like Christopher Nolan has the clout to get such an artistically risk-taking film made. Nolan does like the concept of playing scenes out of order to the stream of events, going back from Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), all the way back to Memento (2000).

He’s clearly the helmsman I would choose to write and direct a Doctor Who film – if only the BBC could afford him – and he’s surely got to be up for an Oscar this time around.

His Dunkirk isn’t trying to be Saving Private Ryan, but it does tell its story in a very personal way without becoming overly sentimental.

Dunkirk (12A; sustained threat, intense sequences, moderate violence, strong language; 106 minutes)

Summary: DUNKIRK is a wartime drama about the Allied evacuation from Northern France in 1940.

Rating: ***** (A film of the year contender, watch it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system if you can)