Since his first film Following (1998), Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be one of the most ambitious directors of his generation. Many of Nolan’s films deal with complicated time structuring, turning his scripts into labyrinthine puzzles to be decoded, such as the amnesic haze of Memento (2000), Inception’s (2010) layered dreamscapes, and the theory of relativity in Interstellar (2014). His choice to direct a war film centered on the Battle of Dunkirk thus felt somewhat atypical in the context of his larger filmography. Even more interesting was the cast assembled for the film, which–aside from the well-known Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance–features many unknown actors. Fortunately for them, not only is this an amazing film that has the potential to launch their acting careers, Dunkirk could possibly be remembered as one of the best war films of all time.
That may sound like hyperbole–the war genre is already dense with classics including Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Full Metal Jacket (1987)–but Nolan’s film is unique in how truly immersive it is. Through his last several films, the director has proven himself a fan of IMAX, shooting large portions of Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and The Dark Knight (2008), in the large-screen format. Dunkirk features the most IMAX footage used in a feature film to date, with approximately 70 per cent of the film shot with wide-angle cameras, and is combined with expert cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema to create a singular sense of scale in the film, fully immersing viewers in its historical moment.
The film has remarkably little dialogue, which would typically lead to a lack of investment in the characters. However, thanks to great performances by the ensemble cast, each of the characters feels fleshed out even without knowing their back-stories. Fionn Whitehead (Him, Queers) and Harry Styles (of One Direction)–both in their feature film debuts–do an impressive job of portraying Tommy and Alex, two British soldiers stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk and desperately trying to escape.
The lack of dialogue leaves ample space for composer Hans Zimmer’s (The Dark Knight, Inception) thunderous and anxiety-inducing score to fill things out. The sound design encapsulates the shell-shocked chaos unfolding before us onscreen, with deafening explosions and shrieks of dive-bombers adding to the harrowing experience.
Dunkirk, like much of Nolan’s recent work, is a film that arrests you visually from start to finish. The impossible sense of scale, enabled in tandem by the director’s manipulation of IMAX camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s grandiose scoring, concocts a fully immersive experience befitting the epic subject matter.