2017, dir. Christopher Nolan

the war

Hitler’s army have trapped the Allied forces onto Dunkirk beach, and drop propaganda leaflets (which really happened) to remind us that the options are either surrender or death. Director Christopher Nolan gives us a few short moments of quiet before being forced into the sheer horror of war.

“We surround you.”

Nazi soldiers creep closer towards the beach whilst dive-bombers from the sky and torpedoes from the sea create a hell on earth.

For those who remember their history, the Second World War was still very new at this point in history, and Winston Churchill had only been Prime Minister for two weeks. This and a whole lot of other unsureness seeps through the film on many levels.

This movie stands out from other war films for several reasons:

Firstly, there are three stories (land, sea and air), following three timelines (a week, a day and an hour), which all converge towards the end. Non-linear storytelling is a familiar trademark in Nolan’s films, which he pushes to new levels in Dunkirk.

Secondly, there is no characterisation. Each story has it’s main character for us to follow, but that’s about it. You won’t see flashbacks of their training or memories of romance. Nolan focuses on the raw panic, and these ‘unknown’ people are avatars for us to experience the terror firsthand.

Thirdly, the music is a lead character – in my opinion anyway. The majority of war films have big, brassy, memorable themes. Hans Zimmer has crafted a musical score that not only energises the hysteria, but also acts as an audible usher that guides you across the timelines. Not the kind of music you’ll be whistling on the way home.

There are really so many levels to this movie that are worth analysing.


It Looks Gorgeous

It’s difficult to make an epic war film without lots of browns and greys. In fact, with uniforms, ships, smoke, sand and even desaturation of the film colour itself – it’s near impossible! So how did Nolan get around it? By composing each shot in such a way that it’s worth it to press pause, take a screenshot, print it, frame it and hang it in the dining room. The cinematography is bound to snag Hoyte van Hoytema at least an Oscar nomination. 

I think it’s also worth reminding that everything you see on screen is really there: Every battleship, plane, and explosion. There is no CG or green screens – these are crutches Nolan only uses unless there is absolutely no other way. (Now that you know that, go and re-watch Inception and Interstellar knowing that less than 1% of the special effects are digital)

dunkirk beach

Minimalistic Actors = Maximised Acting

Yes, we see thousands of soldiers and sailors (some of which are actually cardboard cutouts) so wouldn’t it make sense to compliment that with a large all-star ensemble cast? It’s kind of a prerequisite for a big war movie: ‘The Longest Day’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Thin Red Line’, etc. Like I mentioned above, we have only a handful of “blank” characters to follow. And one might go even further to say that their acting was limited by the immense lack of dialogue – a very unusual approach for Nolan, who normally writes dialogue-heavy films.

But I say that this forced the actors to give of their best – and it shows!

Take Tom Hardy for example, arguably the biggest name in the cast, who portrays Farrier, a Spitfire pilot on top of his game. For most of the movie, he is in his cockpit. And because of his helmet and oxygen mask – all we see are his eyes. Hardy is known to have his face covered in a lot of his roles, and that’s what makes his acting so good: He can convey a range of emotion just from his eyes!

This talent is seen in all of the other actors who use their limitations to their acting advantage.


The Sound

If the music is the unseen character in Dunkirk, then the sound is its loyal accomplice. The sounds in Dunkirk (and even lack thereof) play a vital part in the storytelling. A lot of people around the world have publicly complained the the movie is too loud. Christopher Nolan responded something along the lines of ‘That’s exactly how I want it’.

The intention is for the audience to experience what it was actually like. And since you’ll be sitting in comfort while watching the film – instead of dodging bullets on a cold, grimy beach without shelter – it is the filmmakers duty to try and make every bullet as loud as the real thing. You’re meant to feel uncomfortable.

Hans Zimmer’s music is actually built on the sound of a ticking watch (once belonging to Nolan’s grandfather) which can be heard for the entire length of the movie. It is borderline psychological harassment, and it works to maximum effect. When terrifying action is happening, the gaps between ticks feel long – ‘when will this nightmare end?’

planes in formation

Iain’s verdict: Dunkirk

Dunkirk may not be everyone’s cup of seawater, but it’s nevertheless ultra-impressive. You won’t spot loads of gore, like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘We Were Soldiers’ because it’s more about the unbearable agony of the situation.

Nolan himself admits that the film falls into the ‘experimental cinema’ category. But the fact that it continues receiving positive reactions from mainstream audiences proves that Dunkirk is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of a movie.

burning plane






  • Stands out from every other war film.
  • Visually gorgeous
  • Astounding acting
  • Realistic sound


  • It's not a comfortable watch (although deliberately)

Post Author: Iain

I love boardgames and books - but movies are my passion. My parents were amateur filmmakers and their thrill for cinema burns on in me. I enjoy revealing to people how watching old movies are the closest thing we have to time-travel. I enjoy chewing over the latest movie industry trends. But most of all I enjoy the magical exploration of imagination - something so vital in this day and age. I am a graphic designer, musician and filmmaker. My current favourite films: The Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, Lawrence of Arabia, Sunset Boulevard