Dunkirk must be seen the way it was meant to, in IMAX. Only then can the inescapable terror of the events that took place on that lonely French beach in the summer of 1940 be fully inhaled. This isn’t a movie that belongs on an iPad screen. It is built to be absorbed, not witnessed, and when absorbed in IMAX it becomes an experience of terror and claustrophobia, the likes of which I have not seen since Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). To call this the greatest film of 2017 might be premature, but make no mistake, Christopher Nolan has crafted here perhaps the finest film of his career, one that may very well influence the future of war films the way science-fiction has forever been shaped by Gravity.
Dunkirk recounts the horrific events of the Dunkirk evacuation, in which nearly 400,000 French and British soldiers were stranded on a small stretch of beach, following the Battle of Dunkirk, while seemingly uninterested German bombers dispassionately picked them off in a series of air strikes. Their only route of escape was through The Mole, a narrow architectural protrusion from the shore at which British destroyers could berth and take on the wounded. But how do you successfully rescue thousands of soldiers when the Luftwaffe keeps puncturing your hull and U-boats send torpedoes crashing into your side?
It has passed into legend now, how the Royal Navy dispatched a flotilla of civilian ships to aid in the evacuation. Many civilians opted to pilot their own vessels, ready to brave violent forces they had never encountered before. One of them, Moonstone, is commanded by a laconic Mark Rylance, whose adventure across the English Channel is one chapter of Nolan’s three-chapter narrative structure. Rylance occupies The Sea. The futile evacuations at Dunkirk make up The Mole. An absolutely thrilling aerial dogfight for control of the French skies is The Air. Each chapter begins at a different point in time, gradually criss-crossing at various intervals until they converge at the apex to reveal the whole picture.
But the narrative structure is merely the music sheet. Nolan’s masterful tones and melodies drift off the paper and into the auditorium, so that what we get is a symphony of images and sounds that bring us right into the moments of despair. Dunkirk’s score is composed by Hans Zimmer, Nolan’s frequent collaborator, and this is his magnum opus. The score is dark and unrelenting, filled with thunderous bass lines, crescendos that mimic air raid sirens, and an insidiously omnipresent ticking. It fills the gaps the sparse dialogue leaves behind, creating an atmosphere of dread that threatens at any moment to burst at the seams. It is the pacesetter with which the entire film keeps in time.
I suspect Dunkirk will become a film ripe for technical exploration, and perhaps I will work on a video essay to further analyse how Nolan creates tension in a story that has been immortalised in British history and safeguarded by all who study the second World War. His skill reminds me of comedians who are able pull out old dusty stories from memory, shake them off and turn them into hilarious anecdotes. We know how the story of Dunkirk ends. We’ve read articles. We’ve seen documentaries. Nolan’s Dunkirk does exactly what a dramatic film should do: it eschews traditional storytelling methods in favour of spectacle so that familiar legends seem new. Writing, cinematography, musical score, production design and sound design all come together to create an unforgettable chorus of exhilaration.
But of course Dunkirk is not an enjoyable experience. How could any film about needless death be? But it brings you to a place in time and makes you witness not just the atrocities of war but also its potential for compassionate humanity. We know from history that the soldiers were saved, so there is hope for a happy ending. Unfortunately there will still be five years of fighting before the Allies can claim victory. So in a way Dunkirk is the prelude to a much more troubling period. It is bittersweet. An inverse victory, but a victory nonetheless.
I realise I haven’t mentioned or talked about the cast. Rest assured, they are all brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Farrier, the ace pilot played by Tom Hardy, who once again proves his eyes are capable of saying what his mouth cannot. Like his performance as the Batman villain Bane, he is a master of subtle expression. But Dunkirk is larger than actors. It is about a dreadful moment in history that invited a miracle and received one. No single performer could possibly hope to upstage that.