'Dunkirk': Nolan's Take on the War Genre

Updated on July 29, 2017

Much of Christopher Nolan's success lies in his ability to take what many would view as a standard piece of genre filmmaking and turn it into something wholly unique. With Inception, he took the basic format of a heist movie and then proceeded to tell a complex story surrounding the thin line between dreams and reality—something altogether more profound. It is a credit to his talents as both a writer and a director that he is able to surprise and often challenge audiences with concepts and ideas that viewers would be hard-pressed to find in other big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. The critical acclaim that his films receive, as well as their financial success, has resulted in studios putting faith in the writer/director to tackle anything that he so wishes. We see him diving into the war genre with Dunkirk. With such a large-scale undertaking, the question must be asked. Can Nolan can meet expectations on a project like this yet again?

Christopher Nolan on the set of Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan on the set of Dunkirk

Dunkirk tells the story of the heroic evacuation of over 300,000 Allied troops on the beaches of northern France during the Second World War. It is a story of truly epic proportions and thus, on paper, it is well-suited to Nolan's capabilities as a filmmaker as he has been known to deliver films of grand scope and spectacle - Interstellar springs to mind as one of many examples. However in order for a film like this to have the impact it should it must contain a strong human element as, after all, the story of Dunkirk is a very personal one to many. It is therefore a great relief to report that Dunkirk accomplishes its aims with flying colours in what is a suspenseful, immersive and ultimately rewarding experience.

From the opening gunshots that split the silence in Dunkirk's opening scene, we are thrust into the action. Then, soon after following a young private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) onto the infamous beach, we are greeted with the harsh shrieking of Luftwaffe engines as they descend upon the helpless British soldiers who desperately seek that which proves so elusive - home. It is a breath-taking opening and one which effectively puts the viewer in the midst of the sheer peril of the situation. It is soon after this that the audience becomes aware of the three different storylines that the film centres around. One of the stories focusses around those stranded on the beach while another follows a group of ordinary British civilians using their weekend boat in an attempt to bring back as many men as possible; a miraculous effort carried out by many Brits during that fateful time. The final storyline encloses the viewer in the somewhat claustrophobic cockpits of spitfires as we follow two members of The Royal Air Force as they battle their German counterparts. Fascinatingly, these individual plotlines take place over different time frames and Nolan interweaves these narrative strands to remarkable effect. The degree of delicacy to which this stripped-down script is treated cannot be overstated and it is brought to life with sumptuous visuals and at times bone-shaking sound design.

Cillian Murphy playing a traumatised British soldier
Cillian Murphy playing a traumatised British soldier

Elsewhere, Hans Zimmer returns to collaborate with writer/director Nolan yet again and, as one would expect, his score doesn't disappoint; adding a crucial instrumental layer to both the scenes of tension and the moments of beauty and triumph. It is seemingly ever-present throughout and is typically masterful in its composition. The performances are also impressive across the board with the standouts being Mark Rylance as the stoic yet reserved civilian captaining a leisure craft tasked with rescue and Cillian Murphy, playing a shell-shocked survivor of a devastating U-Boat attack.

To conclude, Dunkirk is most certainly a film that can be added to Nolan's long list of successes. It is a story told with the utmost care which blends harrowing moments with touching sentiment and crucially, it can be identified as his piece of work thanks to its fluid and non-linear style. This shall be remembered as the definitive cinematic telling of the Dunkirk story in the years to come, and deservedly so.


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