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Dunkirk: why it's so much more than a war movie


Awards buzz and glowing reviews are circulating around Christopher Nolan's World War II drama Dunkirk.

The director's visceral movie is the dramatisation of the 1940 Operation Dynamo evacuation in which Allied soldiers, surrounded by encroaching Nazi forces, were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk by a flotilla of civilian vessels.

Still on the fence about seeing the movie? Convinced that war movies "aren't for you"? Well here's the reason why the film is so much more than you expect, and why you can't miss it on the big screen.

It's Memento in wartime

Time experimentation has always been Christopher Nolan's thing, from the backwards-forwards structure of Memento to the multiple perspectives of The Prestige and the dreams-within-dreams story of Inception.

You might expect him to take a relatively conventional, tally-ho approach to a World War II drama like Dunkirk. Far from it. In his usual style the director keeps us on our toes, shuffling between three narratives on land, sea and air that unfold over the course of a week, day and one hour, respectively.

Nolan intends that you keep up, but the emotional rewards are extraordinary.

It's a truly overwhelming experience

Right from the first moments as ear-shatteringly loud machine gun fire strafes across the speakers, Nolan's intent is clear: he is putting the audience right in the heart of the chaos unfolding on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Rest assured, there are few more hair-raising sounds this year than an offscreen Luftwaffe pilot circling down on the unsuspecting soldiers on the beaches. This is engrossing, technically accomplished cinema that you'll be talking about for months.

You don't get this immersiveness on the small screen, and Nolan is one of the few Hollywood directors able to maximise the big screen experience (the film was shot using IMAX cameras as well as 35MM and 65MM celluloid stock in order to preserve the sanctity of the film experience).

There are sequences that will take your breath away

A special mention must go to the aerial scenes involving Tom Hardy's brave fighter pilot, Farrier, who tackles the German bombers high above the beaches of Dunkirk.

Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, with whom he worked on Interstellar, Nolan uses sound, visuals and dynamic camera to put you in the cockpit like few other war movies. (Just try not to lean in your seat when aerial maneuvers are performed.)

But it's the little details as well that make this a human drama, as well as a technical one: Farrier scrawling his fuel output onto his dashboard for instance, a potent reminder that time is always ticking away.

It's a fine showcase for Harry Styles and the cast

No, come back! We appreciate you may not be the world's biggest One Direction fan but Harry's gutsy, convincing performance as an imperilled young grunt may well surprise you.

In fact, you may struggle to recognise him. That's because Nolan isn't interested in making a star vehicle, despite the excellent names on board including Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and newcomer Fionn Whitehead.

Instead of using their star personas, he instead gets up into their faces to depict the haunting, harrowing impact of war – trust us when we say the close-ups resonate just as strongly as the explosions.

It honours the spirit of those involved

The evacuation of the 400,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk led to Winston Churchill's famous "we shall never surrender" speech. But in the movie we never hear Churchill's voice, or indeed catch a glimpse of any major world leader.

Nolan instead plants us down with the little people who in rescuing the troops snatched a moral victory from the jaws of defeat. It's as much a humane, compassionate story as it is one that replicates the terror of war – there may well be a few tears come the end.

Convinced? Then click here to book your tickets for Dunkirk and tweet us your responses @Cineworld.