Christopher Nolan‘s gripping, gruelling war epic is his finest film yet. An exhausting, often overwhelming experience, it’s essentially a single, ever-intensifying set-piece that plunges you into the nightmarish chaos of the Dunkirk evacuation. It’s May 1940, eight months into World War II, and 400,000 British troops find themselves stranded and helpless on the shores of northern France. The safety and security of home lies just across the water, but with the advancing German forces almost at their backs they’re desperate and almost broken – sitting ducks praying for deliverance.
From minute one it’s a constant struggle to survive, to endure, Nolan setting the tone with a chest-pounding opening sequence that introduces Fionn Whitehead‘s Tommy – our main eyes and ears. He and other gaunt-looking squaddies are wandering through the deserted Dunkirk streets when a shot from an unseen German gun shatters the quiet and jolts you clean out of your chair. From here Hans Zimmer‘s groaning, grimly effective score kicks in and Tommy and thousands of others like him – including a perfectly fine Harry Styles – are thrown from one fresh hell to the next.
Glimmers of hope are snuffed out from both above and below, with circling Stuka planes and U-boats sinking the few British ships that Kenneth Branagh‘s naval commander has at his disposal. Still, even amid all the panic and despair, Nolan never overdoes it. Instead of unnecessary grandstanding and melodrama we get an intelligent, split-focus narrative that also features Tom Hardy‘s outgunned Spitfire pilot and stoic civilian volunteer Mark Rylance – the latter joining the now legendary flotilla of small fishing craft.
The performances, to a man, remain impressively understated, while the dialogue is cut to the bone.