When I first read the reviews for Dunkirk, I thought it was odd that every outlet seemed to be saying the same few things about it. After seeing the film though, it makes sense why. This isn’t really a movie you can describe without sounding like a shell-shocked loon. Stumbling out of that theater my eyes were red from tearing up so many times and all I could get to come out of my mouth was, “The sound… it was… perfect”. Never has a film managed to play so much with my emotions and feed into so many of my passions or interests. There’s a lot of elements at play in this film, so avoiding spoilers as best as I can, here’s my review of Dunkirk.
A Film That Sounds Like No Other
What can’t be emphasized enough about Dunkirk is that the sound design in the film is second to none. The way Nolan and Zimmer and the rest of the crew manage to draw you into the film from the first scene is thanks to the top notch score, that so effortlessly keeps the film in a constant forward motion. Screeching strings, ticking clocks, and booming weapons all set an exhilarating tempo that persists through the entire film. This sound design is key as well, as there’s barely any dialogue in this film, which is a good thing. Whether we’re inside a sinking ship or flying up above the clouds in a plane, everything sounds not only real, but hyper-realistic to the point that every gunshot brings a heart stopping moment after it. When you learn to critique films in school, one of the elements that you spend a lot of time on is sound, because there’s a lot of artistic decisions with sound that often get overlooked. Silence is typically one of them, and after watching Dunkirk you’ll realize why silence is such an important element of sound design. The best moments in the film come from soul crushing loudness that are perfectly set up from the silence that precedes them.
A Layered Tale
For those walking into the film unknowing, I think it’s important to preface that Nolan structures Dunkirk into three layers. One follows desperate troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation. One follows a father and son who get called by the British Navy to use their civilian vessel to sail into dangerous waters and help the troops evacuate Dunkirk. The third, and personally the most visually impressive layer, follows Tom Hardy as a British RAF fighter pilot, desperately trying to keep his fellow troops alive. The concept of each arc is brilliant, and is the most creative way I’ve seen a filmmaker tell a war story. Instead of Spielberg’s method of humanizing everyone in Saving Private Ryan, Nolan never once shows an enemy’s face. In fact, save for one or two scenes, the Germans are never actually seen, and instead we only feel and hear their bullets, their bombs, and their planes. It’s a harrowing effect, as you waste no time pondering who the enemy is, only who the heroes are.
“We Want to See the Cliffs”
The sound really is what puts this film above and beyond, but that doesn’t mean this film isn’t visually stunning either. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema brings the same level of intense shooting that he did in Interstellar, except this time I feel his style is more appreciated with the real settings and more personal tale. While I personally adore Interstellar, dire tales of space and sci-fi aren’t for everyone, while personal tales of war and survival are. Hoytema takes us inside the holds of ships, onto vast open waves, and into super intense dog-fights, giving each scene their own sense of important scale and grandeur that really ups the enjoyability of the film. As someone who lived in England for several years and having visited and driven through France, the film nails the drab, foggy, and damp atmosphere that these ports and beaches have. Even more impressively is that they manage to still make these sections looks beautiful and breathtaking at the same time. The Tom Hardy plane scenes in this film genuinely mesmerized me, and the beauty between the chaos really mirrors the sound design which does the same.
A Brilliantly British Cast
The sneakiest element of this film is how effective the casting works to set the film up for greatness. Nolan managed to get actors who can portray so much in just their face, that the lack of dialogue goes unnoticed. Many have already pointed out that Tom Hardy barely has any lines through the film, and as he is a pilot, spends most of his time covered by a mask. Despite this, using just his eyes you can tell exactly what is going through Hardy’s mind and heart. This is also brilliantly done by Mark Rylance, who plays the father in the father/son duo I mentioned earlier, who dispenses wry wisdom to his son through heavy remarks and emotional glances. Every member of the cast pulls their weight, including a surprisingly brilliant performance from Harry Styles, who makes the best possible splash onto the big screen. On a deeper level, my favorite part of the casting is the perfect capturing of the split in British society between the upper and lower classes. All the officers in the film had light brown hair and fairer skin, with pointed features and posh accents. The average soldiers meanwhile all had dark hair, crooked teeth, and more rugged accents. This sneaky yet accurate distinction between the British classes enhances the believability of the these character’s roles.
Summary & Score
Dunkirk is exactly the film British people needed right now. I think the fact that the French are complaining about being written out of the film’s history is just indicative of how much of a love letter this movie is to not only those who served in that evacuation, but to what it means to be British. Subtle things in the film stir up British pride to no end, most notably how every character never calls their desired destination “England” but rather, “Home”. You see characters break down because they can see the land they call home from the shores they stand on but recognize the danger that lies between them. Every story-line is full of moments that display the rawest emotions that surround human survival, and for that I commend it. This is a movie that calls back to when the British put every single drop of themselves into defeating evil, and while the Battle of Dunkirk was a logistical nightmare, the soldiers who escaped that day went on to defeat Hitler and save the world from destruction. In a day and age where Theresa May considers censoring the internet for people’s safety and Mayor Khan of London says that acts of Islamic Terror are “Part and parcel of living in a big city”, Britain could really use an inspiring film. A film that hearkens back to the days when being a nationalist and having an unbreakable spirit were something all Brits possessed, no matter what age, gender, or class. Good on Nolan for making that film, I just hope that people appreciate that aspect of the film for what it is.