Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a blockbuster of a different breed to the endless list of Marvel Universe offerings that have dominated the past decade. With its minimal dialogue and ambitious plotting, Dunkirk offers an uncompromising viewing experience. Rather than being impenetrable, however, Nolan’s film grips from the start and drives relentlessly toward that historic day beside/on/over the English Channel.
The challenge of encapsulating the events of the Dunkirk evacuation in a very tight 106 minutes would have been tricky for any screenwriter. Christopher Nolan’s solution is to follow three separate story lines – one concerning soldiers on the beach, one following a civilian vessel across the channel, and the last flying with the Spitfires above the carnage. The real skill of the plotting lies in the three distinct time frames that these storylines are told over (one week, one hour and one day). While all these plotlines are eventually linked, the fact that Nolan can tell all three stories concurrently without unbalancing the narrative is extremely impressive.
The cast is a real treat, with Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead and Tom Hardy all putting in understatedly compelling performances. Sir Kenny Branagh also makes an appearance, although it’s a little disappointing that the officer he plays might as well be called Captain Exposition. But that is a minor and pedantic criticism. The fact is the lack of dialogue in the film makes it necessary for him to orientate us with the logistics of the evacuation. The lack of dialogue is what makes Dunkirk a purely cinematic experience – the storytelling is all visual and the audience is required to interpret as well as watch. In this way, I was consistently reminded of Under the Skin (2013) which similarly left the audience alone to make sense of the plot.
Dunkirk is essential viewing on a number of counts. A master director, a raft of British stars, mesmeric storytelling and a seismic historical event encapsulated. When it comes to cinema, what else is there?