The real-life story that inspired Christopher Nolan’s latest film is not typical theme for a summer blockbuster, the battle of Dunkirk was a botched mission and a hasty retreat. Sensitive portrayal of a moment like this requires a similarly sensitive touch, and never has Nolan displayed his talents as he does in this film.
The film’s running time of under two hours immediately sets it apart from the rest of Nolan’s catalogue, which is littered with films that have a tendency to be tedious. This is not the case for Dunkirk which, by virtue of its brevity, does not waste a single second. From its opening shots, the tension is unbearable and relentless until its final moments.
That tension is bolstered by some of the most astounding sound design and musical score work I have ever seen in a film. The score is punctuated by a ceaseless pulse, quickening in high action sequences and never letting the tension die in quieter moments. Gunshots ring in your ears, and overhead planes screech as they approach. The overall effect is harrowing.
Though short, the film is not without Nolan’s typical narrative twists. We follow three narrative threads throughout, though while each ends at the same place, they take up different lengths of time (from an hour, to a day, to a week). The confusion that arises from this is a deliberate added layer of chaos that works without becoming convoluted.
The final and perhaps most effective piece of this puzzle is the film’s beyond stellar cast. It’s a regular who’s-who of British actors, featuring everyone from Kenneth Branagh to Tom Hardy to Harry Styles. The cast is excellent, but by far the standout is Cillian Murphy, who works wonders with what is the film’s darkest, most complicated role.
When the tension finally lets up in this film, it’s earned that moment and it revels in it to great effect. Hans Zimmer score swells to beautiful heights, and you feel the relief of every soldier on that beach. War films have a tendency to assume that you side with their own patriotism, but Dunkirk builds to that catharsis on its own merit. No film in recent memory has been so thoroughly emotionally affecting; this is a must watch.