Dunkirk is a stunning cinematic achievement

Christopher Nolan's masterful war movie puts you on the beach, in the air and under the water with British soldiers trying to survive the Second World War

DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan). 106 minutes. Now playing. See listing. Rating: NNNNN

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a stunning technical accomplishment – like all of writer/producer/director Nolan’s films, I suppose – and also the leanest, sharpest thing he’s made since Memento.

Shifting between three perspectives, Nolan places us on the beach, in the air and under the water during the days in late May and early June, 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British troops were isolated on the beaches of Dunkirk, waiting for rescue.

There is no backstory offered for any of the characters, and almost no dialogue spoken that isn’t immediately relevant to the situation the enemy Germans are never even seen outside of their fighter planes. (There is also a torpedo.)

Everything is boiled down to survival from one moment to the next, driven by an unnerving Hans Zimmer score that sounds like either a ticking clock or a frenzied heartbeat and a relentless, dynamic visual aesthetic in which the camera is either moving with the characters or holding nervously in place alongside them.

The actors – among them Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden of Tommy’s Honour, magnetic newcomer Fionn Whitehead and that Harry Styles fellow – are grimly efficient, telling the story through body language and frantic sideways glances the air between soldiers feels charged with danger.

In his first historical docudrama, Nolan – whose movies have been growing longer and heavier with self-importance over the years – finds new energy and new purpose. He confidently establishes the complex, asynchronous narrative and knits its pieces together into a cohesive whole while never losing the pace. And though the film’s mechanics threaten to overwhelm its heart, Nolan brings the emotion to bear exactly when it’s needed, trusting his actors to carry key moments with little more than a change of expression. (Believe me when I tell you Kenneth Branagh gives the performance of the film, in perhaps six minutes of screen time.)

It is, simply, masterful. See it in 70mm or IMAX if you can, to best appreciate Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and the breadth of Nolan’s ambition. They’ve earned that.

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