Seeing a new directed by Christopher Nolan film is always such an event; it comes with really high expectations -of being completely left in awe, of being dazzled, of watching something that’s potentially going to be a game-changer, especially for ‘commercial’ cinema, as I call it, ie. operating within the boundaries of the Hollywood industry. I’m glad to say, Dunkirk doesn’t fall short of that expectation -it completely, absolutely, exceeds it.
The tricky part of making a “war film” is that the genre in itself is quite restrictive. There are rules to it, and Chris Nolan abides by them -it’s telling a story about something that is so utterly visceral, and extreme, that you can’t really go about a thousand different ways of doing it. Yet there’s something that feels inherently innovative, and radical, in the way Chris Nolan chose to depict it. It’s not so much a war film as a thriller about war -which sounds like such a clichĂ© way of putting it, but it seems like the closest description of Dunkirk, if you were looking for one.
All of Chris Nolan’s usual ‘trademarks’ (others would call those gimmicks or tricks for sure) are there: it somewhat plays with the conventional structure of storytelling (yet plays out in three clean acts), there’s a bit of fiddling around with the linear arrangement of the event and yet it’s a very straightforward story of that one war evacuation, the photography is both very natural and elegant and finally, it has a very restrained emotional aspect, which builds up to an incredibly strong, climactic ending. It’s almost as if everything -plot information, character development and background etc., needed to be withheld, and then all of the emotion released in order to achieve the greater effect. And that is indeed the essence of why Dunkirk is such brilliant storytelling. As usual with Chris Nolan, there’s nothing that’s given freely, or understated -the viewer is just thrown in there, directly, bluntly, unable to make sense of it all or at least to process it like a conventional story, until the end really, that one final emotional sequence. It’s almost like being held underwater for two hours, and then being able to breathe again. In that sense it’s quite similar to Interstellar, perhaps with less renlentless questioning, and bigger action scenes.
By Nolan standards, Dunkirk‘s runtime is quite short, an hour and forty-five minutes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that there’s so very little character development. Very little in the way of traditional narrative storytelling is there, which is why it might feel really and almost baffling for audiences expecting a summer blockbuster. But frankly it’s one of the best things about the film: you don’t really need to know about the personal stories of the soldiers, civilians and pilots that we’re following. The whole ordeal of a war is just too horrible to be reduced to circumstances or context and there’s the overwhelming feeling that something more fundamental is at play here. More importantly, the sense of urgency and of looming danger is just ubiquitous -it permeates the whole film, and in a way, that’s what makes it truly successful. Of course all of that is meticulously created with the editing (both image and sound) and that’s why Dunkirk feels yet like another massive, monumental, technical achievement. Again, Chris Nolan created a film that’s probably for the ages -only time will tell. It’s just filmmaking reduced to its simpler yet most powerful form.
Of course the film is supported by immaculate acting performances (from Fionn Whitehead’s lead part to the supporting roles) and that’s even more impressive considering that the actual screenplay, as mentioned before, is quite minimal. The score, composed by Hans Zimmer, is a triumph of simplicity -it’s so carefully interwoven with the structure of the film, again with that incredible appearance of effortlessness, yet we all know it’s anything but. Production and costume design are very meticulous indeed, and the lack of computer-generated effects simply lends the film an awe-inspiring and tangible sense of reality.
Is this Chris Nolan’s best film yet? Hard to tell, but it certainly feels like his most important and most accomplished yet. That’s quite a statement for a director with such successful films, especially as he seems to keep puhsing the bar higher. It’s hard to be objective when watching a Nolan film, a director I hold in such high regard, yet I also feel confident saying that Dunkirk is easily this year’s best film. Eventually that standard of excellence has to flounder, but I’m glad to say, Dunkirk absolutely lives up to it so far, and to the rest of his filmography. Onto the next film, then!

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