Reviewer: Elijah Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 106 minutes
There is an old adage in storytelling that says “show, don’t tell.” It seems that Dunkirk writer and director Christopher Nolan really took this widom to heart when putting together his new war epic. Together with his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, a soundtrack by film veteran Hans Zimmer, and a slew of great performances, Nolan puts together a film that takes the audience into the world of Dunkirk.
The opening sequence sets the tone for the film, showing British soldiers attacked and killed in an unexpected and sudden attack by unseen enemy soldiers. This continues throughout the film, with action, death and distaster always lurking just behind the calm façade of the British retreat from northern France. The fact that we never see an emeny soldier in the film is no doubt a deliberate choice, as it forces the audience to see the war itself as the enemy. I found this to be a refreshing change from other WWII films such as The Great Escape (1963) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) that fall into the “good guys vs. Nazis” school of nuanced filmmaking.
Arguably the best shot of the whole film is a stunning panoramic shot of thousands of men lining the beach, all facing out across the English Channel. It gives the audience a strong insight into the sense of both longing and dread that these soldiers must have felt: so close to home, yet so far from safety. While the film is filled with fantastic cinematography from van Hoytema, it is this image that will stick with most filmgoers.
Hans Zimmer’s score is a constant presence in the film, filling the void left by the lack of dialogue with a soundtrack that includes the most nerve-wracking violin music since Psycho (1960). It never lets the audience relax, keeping them in a constant state of anxious discomfort that reflects the experience of those onscreen. Even in the brief moments of victory and hope in the film, the violin still lurks menacingly in the background, reminding us that in war-torn Europe there was no true safety.
The performances in Dunkirk were sublime, even if it was difficult to distinguish between the uniformed white men who made up almost the entire cast. Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier stood out as a great performance, and Mark Rylance’s portrayal of the stoic Mr. Dawson filled this Australian with pride in the “mother country”.
The film isn’t without its issues however, as Nolan’s complete aversion to “telling” in this film did leave me confused as to what was happening at several points in the film, and this really took me out of what he was “showing”. This problem was compounded by the lack of diversity in casting and by his signature usage of non-linear storytelling. Considering that Nolan also directed Memento and Inception, it is unsurpising that Dunkirk’s storytelling becomes confusing at times.
Christopher Nolan uses his film not to tell the story of Dunkirk, but to show an audience what it was like to be there. While film-goers might not walk away from the cinema with a great understanding of the facts of Dunkirk, they will walk away with a greater appreciation of what the soldiers who fought there went through—and that is an impressive accomplishment.