Movie Review: Dunkirk (English)

When you have a ticking stopwatch embedded deeply into the background score (Hans Zimmer, once again proving what a master composer he is with an ominous score that aptly dials up the tension even if you wished he gave it all a rest in scenes where war noise would have been more than sufficient), you got to know every second counts. And nowhere is this obsession with time (and precision) more apparent than in director Christopher Nolan's latest film set against the backdrop of Dunkirk evacuation, an operation that the then U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a "colossal military disaster."

Conceived as a triptych of events - titled The Mole*, The Sea and The Air - unfolding in the realms of land, sea and air respectively over a period of one week, one day and one hour, the thrilling-if-clinically detached (psychological) war drama alternates between the three strands before culminating in a miraculous rescue operation that would go on to save more than 300,000 Allied soldiers by a fleet of over 700 private boats that came to be known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk.

That these trio of stories criss-cross at various chronological vantage points in a feat of structural brilliance remains one of the most audacious filmmaking techniques ever realised on screen, not to mention one of Nolan's most ambitious experiments with time thus far. Even the film's opening stretch defies a sense of order, landing us, the audience, in the midst of an ongoing onslaught and a few sparse words to set the context and prepare us for what's to follow: "The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle." Exposition be damned!

Though the story is leagues different from Nolan's previous directorial outings like Inception, Interstellar and others, Dunkirk is patently his. Not just for the said fluid manipulation of time and space, but also for the visual (stunning camerawork by Hoyte van Hoytema) and aural immersion he brings to the table and the gargantuan grandiosity in scale. Dunkirk is also perhaps that rare film which lets the moody atmospherics and the visceral, at times claustrophobic, experiences do the talking more than the characters that inhabit the narrative. Taken in that sense, it's not so much a movie that focusses on a specific character (some are even nameless) as it's a fictional account of the war and the devastating consequences that inevitably come with it.

Dunkirk will be doubtless compared to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, and rightly so for its chaotic, gritty portrayal of war and the similar themes the movies share. But if it deserves a watch, despite its exclusively British version of the events, it's because it is stirring, compelling and human, as much as it is a harrowing tale of sacrifice**, hope and survival. What's more, it's a testament to Nolan's artistic genius. Running a scant 106 minutes and refreshingly cut loose from melodrama, Dunkirk is that spectacular blockbuster you have been waiting for. A cinematic triumph, no less.

*Mild spoiler alert: This title is open to two possible interpretations, one that of a spy, which is obvious from the course of events that transpire in the film, but could also refer to "a large solid structure on a shore serving as a pier, breakwater, or causeway." Indeed, a Wikipedia search result for mole talks about its crucial role (called East Mole) in saving the cornered British and French troops during the evacuation.

**Spoiler alert: It's really interesting how this aspect is interweaved into each of the three segments. We witness a British commander staying back to rescue the stranded French soldiers, a French soldier losing his life saving the British (The Mole), a sailor who sets out to bring his countrymen back losing his son's friend George in what's a rash act of violence (The Sea), and a Spitfire pilot who, after having run out of fuel, allows himself to be captured by the Nazi troops, leaving very little to imagination (The Air). None of this is explicitly spelled out, but they leave you with a lump in your throat.