Dunkirk was literally my third war movie at the cinema in a roll. It started with War for the Planet of the Apes, which was one of the most evocative and unsettling human war films I have seen. It was followed by a Japanese anime, In This Corner of the World, an exquisite time-capsule of a movie, which showed me a new way the harrowing story of Hiroshima could be told. Then there was Dunkirk and what a film this is. I can’t remember the last time I sat in stunned silence as the end-credits rolled, my mind awashed with the feeling that I have touched greatness. This is not just an excellent film, it is a great war film and it is great because of the things it didn’t do.
A word search of “dunkirk” in IMDb threw up 19 entries! (N-n-n-nineteen… in the metallic voice of Paul Hardcastle’s 19 😬) I had no idea the evacuation of Dunkirk became the inspiration of so many films and documentaries. First up, Christopher Nolan didn’t need to serve up a history lesson again. A few simple opening sentences give context and we are thrown into the deep end. Dunkirk is about men trying to survive into the next hour with the onslaught of danger coming from every conceivable angle, plain and simple. It is how Nolan goes about showcasing it that is sheer masterclass.
When was the last time you saw a war film without someone screaming jingoistic slogans in your face or not seeing a scene of a conflicted protagonist trying to justify the reason for war? When was the last time you not see scenes of carnage and human viscera? When was the last time you not see the face of the enemy in a fire-fight? These are practically the foundation of which the war genre is built on, but Dunkirk never treads the path of familiarity. Heck! It doesn’t even have a single drop of blood (the bloodied bandage on the wounded soldier is not counted 😊). But yet the tension is so nerve-wrecking, the fear so real that I gripped the armrests for dear life and I thought I forget to breathe for over an hour.
The dialogue is so spare and functional, it might as well have been a silent film with sound effects, but yet my entire being was transfixed on the big screen, ogling at the spellbinding vistas of war from the land, air and sea. The characters, what characters, are nameless, but yet their fear is so palpable they are instantly relatable. The heroics of ordinary folks is monumental but never felt emotionally manipulative. The cinematography is astonishing, recreating the combat of WWII so marvellously. I felt like I was running with the hapless soldiers or trapped in a God forsaken place praying for deliverance.
Hans Zimmer’s music score is an interesting detour from the usual soundtracks of blockbusters. It has no recognisable melody or an infectious refrain that will cement itself into your consciousness. It is largely monochromatic, like a few repetitive notes linked together, but by golly it worked. This is a score that makes absolute no sense when you play on your hi-fi system, but together with what transpires on screen the music feels larger than life, building that suspense to a mind-blowing crescendo. IMHO the music and the action share a symbiotic relationship, each element helping the other to create the biggest impact. On its own it wouldn’t have worked as well, but together, it is a masterpiece.
There are some superb films I have seen this year, but so far there is only one great film – Dunkirk. Throw away all you think you know about war films and immerse yourself in the biggest possible screen (that would be the IMAX and it is worth every cent) and feel the crushing blow of grim defeat. Next year’s Oscars may be far away, but I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that the Academy will remember this big time.
5 / 5
PS – my first 5/5 movie this year and I don’t give them out very often.