The sound of the discharge from the military rifles and the unmistakable pop that follows upon impact at target is the first thing that hits you and boy does it hit you hard! It is sheer moviemaking genius to captivate the viewer not with a striking visual but with spine-tingling sound. The experience is as close to reality as it can get and one feels like they are smack-dab in the middle of an ambush with an enemy that is slowly but surely squeezing you into a corner and where you are fast running out of both real estate and recourse.
Barricaded at the edge of land and assembled on that sandy strip to be shipped back to the safety of home; safety which can almost be seen and yet is like a cruel mirage that eludes you every time you think you have made it. The howling wind rushing in from the ocean with sharp serrated edges, the mist so dense that it feels it might suffocate, the marauding German warplanes raining hell in wave after bloody wave and the misery is absolute. Misery likes company as they say and in this case there are a lot of companions each a little more miserable that the other.
The arresting imagery of the cruelty of war is just about adequate by itself but what well and truly drives a stake through your heart is the sound: It is rich, resounding and real. The explosion of the shells that land on the destroyers and the jetties and which mangle the metal or tear through scores of cannon fodder tell a tale of human tragedy that one is unlikely to forget.
The trademark non-linear weaving in and out of three sub-plots has been masterfully orchestrated by the transcendent Nolan. The young soldier, the spitfire pilot(s) and the father-son led crew on the rescue boat present a three-dimensional narrative spanning earth’s three canvases; the lithosphere, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere. The young soldier on land but trying to employ every trick available to his ingenuity to get off land and into the relative safety of water, the Spitfire pilot up in the air trying to use every shred of his nerve, every second of his training and every ounce of his resolve to send as many German warplanes as fast to their watery graves as possible and the rescue boat crew in the water and trying to get to land as quickly as possible hoping to rescue as many of the stranded soldiers as possible. The situational paradoxes couldn’t be any starker.
The assemblage of talent is indubitable yet the individual performances by such veteran thespians as Sir Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance are deliberately muted to allow for the gravity of occasion to come roaring forth. A case in point is that you don’t even see the full face of someone like Tom Hardy until the final shot of this cinematic tour de force! Little wonder then that the young Dionn Whitehead reprising the role of the barely legal wooden-faced British soldier is used as the anchor.
There is no over-dramatization of the casualties of war; no dismembered appendages scattered around, no blood spurting wounds and no blood-curdling cries of anguish. Death is omnipresent and there is simply no time to mourn, emotions have been banished, instinct reigns supreme and the job must be done regardless of the price it may exact. The military jeeps and trucks lined up to form a makeshift jetty to replace the bombed out original succinctly encapsulates how instinct and pure reaction take over in the theater of war.
They say there are many faces of war and admittedly every face is gruesome yet in all of the pathos war torments humanity with there are episodes of courage that come to the fore to act as the palliative for the bruised soul. Dunkirk is a triumph that depicts just that and a little more.
Sound, screenplay and direction are absolute stand-outs.
“When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” The genius of Christopher Nolan yet again manages to expose the two faces (tragedy and triumph) of an imposter called war perfectly despite the films many imperfections.