Dunkirk film review: Christopher Nolan has crafted a minimalist war film with maximal impact

The war film genre is a fundamentally competitive one which many great directors have submitted an (often single) entry to. It’s a test of one’s technical chops; can you replicate on the screen one of the most complicated and terrible activities that man has ever taken part in?

With Christopher Nolan’s submission, the answer is yes and in unique and spectacular fashion.

Dunkirk is an unusually linear film from the writer-director (Memento, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar), centering exclusively on the evacuation of Allied troops who found themselves surrounded in Dunkirk, France during the Second World War. There’s no political context provided, no worried families back home; it’s focused entirely on the race to rescue soldiers itself and as such is tense and battle-orientated from start to finish. Nolan does allow himself one piece of trademark narrative disruption though, the chronology of the film not being as straightforward as it initially appears.

The director playfully thanked Warner Bros for giving this “British movie an American budget” at the premiere and, indeed, it was necessary in achieving his vision, paying for the extensive practical effects and vast cast of extras employed to make war look real. It’s very much a story of land, sea and air and all three elements look jaw-dropping, shot meticulously by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar, Spectre) on IMAX 65mm film stock.

The Spitfire dogfights in the sky are particularly gorgeous, unfolding most of the time from a cockpit or first-person perspective and making it feel like you’re playing a video game 10 generations of console into the future. On land, the sea foam shivers on the beaches around the dead, even the howling wind not seeming to want to let the soldiers escape, while at sea the desperate situation on sinking destroyer boats is depicted with gasping grit, the camera being flipped on its side and stationed in unusual places in order to capture the…

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