Mark Rylance is the very heart of Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly directed war movie, Dunkirk. Looking every bit the English gent in a shirt and tie and jumper, Rylance plays a civilian who navigates his small boat across the Channel, hoping to ferry stranded British soldiers back home. Nolan places this quiet man just where he puts the audience: in the midst of relentless action, during one of the most renowned events of World War Two. In 1940, 400,000 British and French troops were surrounded by the enemy on a beach in France, with the English Channel their only escape route home.
Dunkirk is instantly set apart from simpler, hero-driven war movies
The best war movies of the last 20 years, including Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, have also placed viewers in the centre of battle. Nolan has not reinvented that immersive approach, but he comes close to perfecting it.
More stories like this:
The opening scenes visually invite us into the movie. Several soldiers, their backs to the camera, walk down an empty street in the French town of Dunkirk. Nolan leaves a space between them where we, the viewers, can fit, as if we’re following them along the street. Seeing the film on a large screen makes it especially easy to glide into its world . The Imax format has rarely been used to such good effect. (Shot in Imax and 70mm, the film will be shown in theaters in various formats.)
Running from sudden gunfire, one of the young soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), arrives at the beach, which is crowded with troops waiting to climb onto too-few ships. From there, Nolan quickly establishes three different storylines and timeframes that are gracefully interspersed throughout the movie. The land sequence on the beach covers a week. Among the characters, all fictional, are Kenneth Branagh as a British naval commander. He is the most traditional figure, worried about getting his men home.
Mark Rylance brings a depth beyond what is written in the script
Tommy, innocent and fearful, meets a French soldier, and they desperately carry an injured man on a stretcher toward the shore. Theirs is not a noble act. They are pretending to be medics in the hope of getting on a ship and saving themselves, which instantly sets Dunkirk apart from simpler, hero-driven war movies.
Rylance’s character, Mr Dawson, is part of the day-long sea action, in which hundreds of small boats are called on to help. Dawson’s young adult son and a teenaged friend are also on board. Cillian Murphy later joins them as a traumatised soldier rescued from the sea. But it is Rylance who carries the emotional weight of the movie on his wrinkled, weary face, full of determination and simple decency. He brings a depth beyond the lines written into the script.
War laid bare
Nolan has said that the inspiring story of the little ships was something he, like many in Britain, grew up with in its ‘almost fairy-tale form’. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ may be more familiar in the UK than elsewhere, but that is no obstacle. The film resonates in purely human terms, as Nolan strips away the myth to reveal a complex reality, and many different forms of heroism and of fear.
The air battle, which covers only an hour, has Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as RAF fighter pilots. When his fuel gauge fails, Hardy’s character must rely on radio contact with Lowden’s, guessing whether he’ll have enough fuel to get his Spitfire home.
It is Mr Dawson who uses the apt phrase “sitting ducks.” All these characters are under fire from the air, as Nolan conveys a sense of extreme vulnerability. To shelter themselves from gunfire overhead, soldiers on the beach can do little more than fall flat on their faces. Boats, big and small, are sunk. The hull of a ship begins to fill with water and people who have supposedly been rescued have to fight their way out. One of them is played by pop star Harry Styles, as a quick-tempered soldier. Styles has a vibrant presence on screen, but his fans should know this is a small part.
The technical achievement here is extraordinary
With relatively little dialogue, and characters who are not given histories, Nolan lets the action carry the story and build suspense. He allows the audience to feel the claustrophobia of entrapment in the hull of the bombed ship, and the immediate peril of being in the air as German fighter planes attack. The technical achievement here is extraordinary. Giant Imax cameras were even taken onto planes, and very little of the film was computer enhanced.
What matters most, though, is that the technique never calls attention to itself. Instead, viewers are drawn into the messy swirl of events. Each image registers: a fully clothed soldier walks into the ocean, his choice never explained; bodies wash up on shore at low tide.
Hans Zimmer’s perfectly-modulated score is an understated mix of music and sound effects. It knits the movie together and contributes to the tension without manipulating emotions the way clichéd, soaring melodies do in old-fashioned war movies. And after all the intense drama, Dunkirk earns its emotional ending, as the music finally soars with a theme borrowed from Elgar.
In Nolan’s previous films, as different as The Dark Knight and The Prestige, he has proven to be a master of action and of pacing. He is slightly less accomplished as the screenwriter of Dunkirk. The movie’s clear-eyed lack of sentiment is one of its strengths. But if Saving Private Ryan veers a bit too much toward pulling on heartstrings, Dunkirk is a touch cooler and more cerebral than it might have been. With the exception of Rylance’s Mr Dawson, we become attached to the characters as figures in the story, without connecting to them viscerally or deeply.
But that slight tilt does not undermine the film’s great accomplishment. In a swift 106 minutes, watching Dunkirk becomes a stunning and genuine experience, enveloping viewers in a way few movies ever do.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.