From start to finish, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a symphonic slice of cinematic heaven.
Focusing solely on the mass evacuation of 400,000 British Allied troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk during the second World War, Dunkirk flits between land, air, and water seamlessly. Nolan is less concerned with treating his characters as individual entities, as he creates a large-scale portrait of a group of men fighting for their lives. Dialogue is minimal – something rarely seen in today’s films, and this works fabulously in presenting to audiences a collective of men (and machines) who just want to find their way home. When one man moves, every other man within the frame moves with him, thereby imbuing scenes with a quality that comes close to being musical.
Speaking of musical, Hans Zimmer’s score often helps create an air of unsettling disquiet, heightening the sense of anxiety and precariousness the many troops face. There are moments, however, when the pounding drums and synth chords are decidedly overused. We know that death is around the corner, we don’t need an overly loud soundtrack continuously taking over scenes to remind us of this fact. This is just a minor complaint however, and never really comes close to ruining an otherwise superb film.
When it comes to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s work, there are zero complaints. His camera work highlights the large-scale nature of the evacuation as equally as it traps us into frames squished with countless men, dead among the alive.
Fionn Whitehead and yes, even Harry Styles, are highly believable in their roles as soldiers, and Mark Rylance plays a civilian trying to sail his yacht towards Dunkirk in an effort to rescue people warmly and earnestly. His role may not have had the same impact under less capable hands. Tom Hardy, under a mask yet again, plays a fighter pilot blasting away German planes with all the determination of a million men.
At times, we may wish to know more about the many soldiers charging through our screens. While these men obviously played a large part in a significant moment of history, they were above all humans, with backstories extending beyond merely trying to stay alive. But at the end of the day, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a film about a society grasping for survival, and the way he sums this up visually is nothing short of sublime.
By the tradition, Christopher Nolan decided to use the real naval destroyers instead of CGI for sea battle sequences in this film. He also used cardboard cut-out props of soldiers and military vehicles placed in the far background of shots to create the illusion of a large army. At one point, there were 62 ships during filming, many of which were actual ‘Little Ships’ of Operation Dynamo.