Relatively short for a war film, Dunkirk is only 106 minutes long, yet eight people walked out of my viewing by the time it drew to a close. Five of those had left by the time it had hit the 30-minute mark. As each person walked past, belongings in hand, never to return, I could feel their pain. If war is horror, then Dunkirk is one of the most-effective war films ever made. From Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986) to The Thin Red Line (1998) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) there have been dozens of great films in the genre, but they all still felt like films — Dunkirk on the other hand has the raw authenticity of a documentary.
Remarkably, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece achieves this without a speck of blood on screen. In fact, the film, rather incredibly, is rated PG-13. Dunkirk shows that the Motion Picture Association of America can be easily circumvented as long as a film doesn’t have shots of death or sex.
But I digress.
Dunkirk is one of the most-effective war films ever made with the raw authenticity of a documentary
Where films such as Saving Private Ryan put you in the centre seat of the theatre of war with the aid of gory violence, Dunkirk does so through psychological engagement. And it proves that emotional pressure trumps on-screen carnage any day. It does this in true Nolan fashion through cinematography, editing and a haunting score.
Behind the lens, Nolan’s Interstellar collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema portrays a war-torn seaside city of Dunkirk beautifully with irresistible camerawork. Shot on IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film stock, the film is a videophile’s dream. Where Nolan amps the immersion is by often placing the audience in the driver’s seat with typically long, perfectly edited shots that segue from one scene to the next without taking you out of the film. Dunkirk, as you probably know, is a World War II film that depicts the desperate evacuation of allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, after hundreds of thousands of soldiers were left like chickens at the slaughter house when the Germans had all but surrounded them. The operation was equally vital on sea, land and air, and Nolan places you in all three elements of the action as if you had been on the battlefield yourself.
Watching Dunkirk, there isn’t a minute where you don’t experience the hopelessness of the troops who await death with no rescue coming. This feeling of lamentation is intensified tenfold by Nolan’s long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer, whose gut-wrenching music constantly works on the nerves. This is probably the best soundtrack from the composer since Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
You may have heard that the weakest aspect of Dunkirk is its narrative, because the film employs such little dialogue. I couldn’t disagree more. I found the characterisation and storytelling in Dunkirk to be very good, and the dialogue to be exactly the amount this type of film needed. To quote a cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words and by using visuals and outstanding performances to tell a story rather than exposition, Nolan has once again shown his ability to take risks and be rewarded handsomely for it.
The only real flaw in Dunkirk is its lack of representation of our heritage. Indian Army Service Corps had several companies serving the British at Dunkirk, and there isn’t a single Indian performance in the film. Perhaps Nolan felt that a few companies out of hundreds of thousands of men didn’t warrant an addition as far as the storytelling is concerned, but some South Asian faces would have only added to the genuineness of what is one of the best pieces of cinema in years.
Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Published in Dawn, ICON, July 30th, 2017