Dunkirk opens in the middle of German dive-bomb attacks on thousands of British troops awaiting evacuation like sitting ducks on the beach of Dunkirk. A young man crouches on the ground beneath the flight path of a dive bomber as the audience watch explosions decimate the beach next to him.
The jarring start immediately sets the tone for the entire film: a quietly unsettling war drama that seeks to emulate the tragedy and tension of the World War II Dunkirk evacuation.
The movie follows three storylines: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air, each of which follows a different set of characters, in a different timeframe. This organization makes some scenes a bit hard to follow.
The film is visually stunning, as is to be expected from Hoyte van Hoytema, the mind behind the cinematography for Interstellar. It’s safe to say that Christopher Nolan is excellent when it comes to setting up the perfect shot. From the sweeping panoramas of Dunkirk’s shores to the cozier shots of a train car interior filled with delirious soldiers – each scene is highly immersive and hard to look away from.
One of the most standout elements of the film? The stellar sound design.
Hans Zimmer employs one of his most frequented tricks: the use of a sound illusion that tricks the listener into believing they are hearing a steadily rising tone, when in fact they are hearing a singular loop of three-layered tones of different octaves. The sound of a piano scale constantly ascending against the steady ticking of a clock makes the tension in the film palpable.
In contrast, some scenes are accompanied by deep, heavy orchestral music that almost feels claustrophobic. Combine this with the discordant sound of planes hitting the water and ships assaulted by dive-bomb attacks, and you have a surefire way to keep the audience gripping their seats.
Irish actor Cillian Murphy’s portrayal of the shell-shocked sole survivor of a U-boat attack is, arguably, the standout performance of the film. His character stands in sharp contrast to the ordinary men of the civilian vessel he is rescued by, and he is presented as the picture boy for the psychological damage that soldiers left the war carrying.
Dunkirk is, all in all, a beautiful and somber film that is hard to shake. Its notable omission of the war film staple of blood and guts makes it easier to handle than others of its genre, but it is psychologically jarring nonetheless.
I give a personal rating of 4.5/5 stars.