Dunkirk is a technical marvel and a masterclass in visual narration from a director on the cusp of greatness.

Initial thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s war epic – Dunkirk – seems to suggest that this is another exercise in the director’s pedigree for mind bending narratives. Three perspectives over land, sea and air occur at relatively different timelines but converge towards the end. That’s typical Nolan for you but the nod to M. C. Escher’s infinite levels of perceived reality is replaced with a sense of urgency from the very first scene to the last. In between is an exceptionally told and painstakingly assembled jaw-dropping spectacle on heroism.

While both the heroes and horrors of WWII have been a Hollywood stage setter for decades, Dunkirk is all about heroes. And there are plenty from civilian pleasure craft owners to daring RAF fighter pilots to the unsung but courageous few in between. Winston Churchill himself has a mention in the film for hoping to save 30,000 Allied troops stranded on the shores of the titular French coast. What Churchill envisioned, however, was just a tenth of the actual numbers that needed urgent evacuation. Mainly comprising of British, French and Belgian soldiers, over 300,000 Allied troops were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With the Nazi war machine closing in from the mainland, and sea and air routes blocked by U-boats and the elite German Luftwaffe, they would need a miracle to get home.

What happens is literally history and although common knowledge, Nolan’s retelling, albeit with a little bit of re-imagining, is a deeply atmospheric and nerve-wrecking account of one the greatest rescue initiatives in history. If the intention was to create a frantic race for survival, Nolan, along with Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who was also DP for Interstellar) and legendary music composer Hans Zimmer not only succeeds first hand, but in the process, elevates this gruelling history lesson into a pressure cooked combat thriller. Yet unlike Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan – one of the goriest war films ever – Nolan keeps bloodshed to the bare minimum, which itself is a rare feat for a war film of such a scale. CGI is also minimised in favour of the real thing – filming on location at Dunkirk, dogfights using real spitfires in actual flight over the English Channel, and shooting mostly on large format film. Also scarce are character dialogue which immensely add to the thickening mood of isolation and despair, until it reaches an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

There isn’t much of a plot either but the on-screen fear, suffocation, claustrophobia, PTSD, that is absorbed and felt by the viewer is THE defining factor that makes Nolan’s narrative seminal. Neither are the few characters that are given some importance fleshed out either. There’s Kenneth Branagh’s top brass naval commander and an unnamed foot soldier surviving calamity after nightmarish calamity on the beach over a period of one week. Meanwhile, a yachter played by Mark Rylance tries to reach said beach during the course of a day. And strapped in the cockpit of a spitfire is Tom Hardy’s pilot gunning down the enemy, but compressed to within an hour. That’s all there is to the plot, but then again, Nolan’s screenplay isn’t really a full bodied story and perhaps not entirely intended as such.

That’s because Dunkirk, in its entirety, is a riveting narration on the mettle of men, and when these three ‘skits’ interlace with increasing frequency, you start to see a collage that is beyond the realms of a typical war film; On a fundamental level it’s all about endurance, determination, survival, self-sacrifice and then a rousing level of patriotic unity that transcends the preservation of values and culture of the Allied nations. That philosophy aside, this film is a cinematic wonder in both its technical components and its artistic range. Hoytema’s deft camerawork, for instance, is deadeye with details which are often off-centre or in the background or in the immediate foreground of the screen. And given Nolan’s minimalist approach to dialogue, watching this film on an IMAX screen just adds to the gorgeous detail of the narrative. Zimmer’s nonstop pulsation of a score in tandem with the sound design and editing does the rest of the talking. The lack of emotional undertones or a story that reaches fruition might be frowned upon by some. But it isn’t required in this film. The craft and technique employed could make this Nolan’s most intimate film yet. Perhaps one of the greatest war films ever made where almost everyone on screen is a hero in his own right.

Rating: ★★★★½

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.