What more can be said about World War II that hasn’t been done before, you ask. Well, a world event that was rich with human stories – of all sorts, like fear, love, bravery, violence, horror, heroism, and physical endurance – can be mined over and over again endlessly as it provides material for action, drama, and romance films. When in the hands of a skilled director like Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) then the potential for storytelling is truly endless.
This is not your typical World War II film in that it focuses more on the experience and environment of the beach at Dunkirk for the English rather than the human or personal stories.
It is the beginning of June 1940 and the Allied forces (primarily the English and French) are in trouble in France. They have been backed up to the coast. As such the English troops are on the beach at Dunkirk waiting for evacuation. Hundreds of thousands of men are hoping to see English destroyers en route to take them back across the channel. Battles are going on all around them. There is not much time left before they will all be overtaken and slaughtered. This would be a huge loss for the Allied forces and the people of England.
Nolan (Interstellar, Inception) is also the screenwriter of the film. As he typically does, Nolan finds a different way of telling a story. Nothing is as you have seen it before. Instead of focusing on the individual soldiers or civilians involved here he attempts to give you an overall picture of what it was like to go through the evacuation at Dunkirk.
Instead of focusing on the individuals soldiers it is the subject matter which is paramount. As such it is not as inherently emotional as other World War II films you might have seen. The characters have not been created to shine, rather they are just vehicles in the story. That does not mean, however, that the acting is below par. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, The Other Boleyn Girl), Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant), Jack Lowden (Denial, ’71), Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), and even acting newcomer and boy band member, Harry Styles afford themselves very well. The lack of emotional depth might baffle some and as such leave them feeling empty in regards to the film, while others will be moved by the story and the realistic recreating of the experience.
Through the sound (definitely warrants an Oscar nomination for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing) and visuals Nolan makes you feel what it was like to be there and live through it. You are immersed in the story due to your senses of sight and hearing. At times you feel like you are hiding beneath a dock with deafening explosions from bombs dropped from German fighter planes or inside a beached ship’s hull as bullets whiz by pierced the metal. So realistic I felt like the bullets were flying right by my ears.
Another bright light is the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In – 2008, The Fighter). Coupled with the decision to use practical effects rather than the usual CGI it creates a stunning product.
Much of the film time passes without any dialogue happening. It does not feel empty rather it is another choice which lends to the realism. The score by the legend Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, As Good As It Gets) fills the air with all the emotion required. It adds up to creating an atmosphere that transports you to the beaches and the battles. Immersive. Probably the most since Saving Private Ryan.
Director Nolan once again demonstrates he is a master of telling a story. From his decisions of how he does it to how he manages the hundreds of extras to putting together a film of such a large scale the man is one of the best directors working today.