From the moment Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk begins, it's obvious something extraordinary is happening.
A group of young soldiers wander through a French suburb, drinking water from a hose, nicking a fag-end from an ashtray on a windowsill. It's dead quiet until, CRASH! rapid gunfire hits like an avalanche, immediately killing most of them where they stand, leaving the survivors scattering frantically to get away.
The camera follows one over a garden wall, fumbling impotently with a shot-gun, narrowly escaping French (friendly) gunfire and finally stumbling down to the beach where he is confronted with acres of sand, another young soldier burying a body, and hundreds of stranded men waiting in rows like targets to be shot at and bombed.
It's deeply immersive, you're in the movie, the sound so sharp and violent it's instinctive to cover your head. Nolan described his vision as "virtual reality without the headset" and he's not wrong. This is the most visceral, shocking opening to a war movie since Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
Though Dunkirk is so much more than just a war movie. Emotionally devastating, cinematically stunning – with visuals easily rivalling Inception – it's a character piece with an enormous cast and very little dialogue, it's a thriller with no real plot, and it's a tale of heroes where the very best they can hope for is just to not die today.
It's based on real events that took place during the Second World War, of course, when thousands of British soldiers were stranded on Dunkirk beach with no means of getting home, and the ships sent to rescue them were repeatedly bombed, torpedoed and sunk. With the Germans fast approaching from the land, this becomes a story of military disaster told through the eyes of individuals.
Nolan, who wrote the script too, makes the action immediate, captivating and unbearably tense through the smart use of close-up camera work and varying timelines in a way that's reminiscent of Memento. Three stories intertwine in staggered time periods – a week, a day and an hour before the film's conclusion, where they all meet, showing different perspectives and ramping up the sense of urgency.
There's so much here packed into the modest 106-minute run time. Each of the three timelines could have comfortably made its own film. Three young men (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard) are desperate to leave the beach by any means necessary but face constant obstacles. Tom Hardy's spitfire pilot is slowly running out of fuel and trying to make every moment count. Mark Rylance is a brave British father sailing across the ocean with his son to pick up stranded soldiers because he knows it's just the right thing to do.
It almost feels wrong to say that a film about a situation so grave – which involved so much loss of life – is utterly thrilling, but it just is. Nolan handles the subject matter with absolute respect, but his set pieces equal any modern fiction film for pacing, shocks and breathless adrenaline. Literally: there are times where it actually feels difficult to breathe.
Occasionally Nolan has been accused of being a little cold as a director. Dunkirk reveals the absolute opposite – it's a big, beautiful, beating heart of a movie that draws you deeply into the lives of its many characters with skill, while avoiding any of Interstellar's sentimentality. But this isn't grief tourism. It's the moments of hope, heart and humanity which will make audiences sob the hardest.
The astonishing ensemble cast should be roundly praised too. Fionn Whitehead, the young soldier we begin the journey with, is terrific – vulnerable, but ceaseless in his will to survive; quiet but conveying volumes by his actions and expressions (and he should rightly expect to inherit a huge swathe of Styles' fans after this).
Rylance is heartbreaking, Hardy stoic and heroic, Kenneth Branagh as the senior officer in charge of the stranded men is wonderfully brave and British, while Cillian Murphy's shellshocked survivor is skittish and painful to watch.
And Harry Styles? It may reek of stunt casting, but if it was, it has completely paid off. Though also not given all that many lines, he's sympathetic and charismatic as a young soldier clinging on to life in the worst of circumstances.
Styles, with Whitehead, deftly conveys the absolute luxury of being warm, dry, and not being shot at or drowned. Indeed, one of the many tear-jerking moments comes from Styles' simple but incomparable joy at being given a beer (there's context…).
Don't like war films? Don't like Nolan? Don't care for Harry Styles? Don't care. Go and see this anyway.
Dunkirk is the film Nolan has been building to his entire career. It's his masterpiece, it's the best film of the year so far, and it's the one to beat come awards time.
Director: Christopher Nolan; Screenplay: Christopher Nolan; Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh; Running time: 106 minutes; Certificate: 12A
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