In Christopher Nolan’s latest film he trades big ideas for historical realism in this reconstruction of the evacuation of Dunkirk.
It dives straight in from the start with an atmosphere thick with tension, and barely pauses for breath over the following 90 minutes. The sense of impending danger is present throughout, in spite of our never seeing the approaching hoards, with Hans Zimmer’s searing score largely to thank.
It’s also a fantastic looking film, with Nolan’s commitment to in-camera once again delivering the goods. As our characters lurch from one life-threatening situation to the next, the realistic sea and air battles are brilliantly put together. This is enough to ensure Nolan continues his run of ‘never having made a bad film’, but even so this remains a somewhat middling entry.
With a remarkably short running time, it gives very little time to set-up or wider context. We’re told the basics: soldiers trapped on beach, Nazis coming. But the evacuation is already underway when the film begins, and through the tight focus on a handful of key characters we never really get much of a sense of how so many people were evacuated so quickly beyond what we’re told in dialogue.
It gives a strangely small scale to a film which features dogfights in the air, battleships capsizing and 400,000 people trapped on a beach. Sweeping cinematography is largely eschewed in favour of up-close-and-personal camera work.
Yet the level of characterization is also somewhat lacking. The brief running time shared between several different characters and situations leaves us with little time to get to know anyone, leaving the impressive cast with little to work with. Cillian Murphy unsurprisingly gives the strongest performance of the film as a broken soldier lost at sea.
In a bold move, the different plot strands are shown in different time frames – some take days, some take hours – and are cut together as if they are happening concurrently. But where Nolan’s Memento adopted an unusual structure, it made sense to follow. Dunkirk never achieves the same feat, instead just feeling like clumsy editing.
Critics have been so gushing about this film, hailed in some quarters as Nolan finally reaching the calibre of Kubrick, that I began to wonder if there were bits missing from the version I saw. The 12a certificate greatly limits the level of visceral realism that can be shown, which in itself prevents it being compared to a film like Full Metal Jacket.
All this adds up to make it feel somewhat insubstantial, and when the end credits roll there’s an inescapable sense of ‘is that it?’. And don’t bother waiting for a post-credits scene. There isn’t one.
Dunkirk works better as a study of suspense than as a piece of storytelling. It amounts to a series of snapshots of various characters and their role in the evacuation, but there’s nothing tying it together beyond the knowledge of the importance of the event it assumes its audience already has.