Dunkirk is thrilling, heart-poundingly intense and easily Christopher Nolan's best film 4 years ago

Dunkirk is thrilling, heart-poundingly intense and easily Christopher Nolan's best film

A stripped-down yet spectacular masterpiece, Dunkirk starts at a breathless pace and rarely lets up from there.

Opening in a hail of gunfire that sees Tommies scatter down the streets of Dunkirk, the theme is set for the rest of the story: the enemy is closing in, and there is no choice but to run.

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“What has happened is a colossal military disaster," a voiceover in the trailer informs us, and that is the measure of it, both in scale as in setting.

Though Christopher Nolan's film is a telling of the Dunkirk evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II, Dunkirk is not intended to be seen as a war movie, and takes steps to distance itself from the genre, aligning itself as a survival thriller.

The enemy are rarely seen, and are almost always referred to as 'the enemy', never 'the Germans' or such. They are a faceless nemesis, and all the more fearsome for it; Luftwaffe planes screaming towards the stranded troops are a more effective villain here than any man in uniform.

Bloodshed is minimal, though the endless threat of Dunkirk is nevertheless horrifying in many instances. The tagline 'Survival is victory' tells us what we need to know: it's not about Britain versus Germany, the Allies versus the Axis. It's about getting 400,000 men away from otherwise certain death.

Yet, Dunkirk is a British movie through and through, though a British movie made on an American budget, and one that takes care not to slip into 'Rule Britannia' pomposity. The soldiers themselves take no glory in their actions; indeed, the story does not allow them to. Instead, it is the civilian sailors sent to rescue them who are endowed with a sense of duty and purposefulness.

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Nolan tells the story from three perspectives: land, sea and air, with each story strand covering a week, a day and an hour respectively. It's a bold narrative choice and expertly executed. The film itself runs at 107 minutes, nearly half the length of his last film Interstellar. It's a tightly-wound, ticking clock, counting down to either annihilation or escape.

In Dunkirk, as he has with almost all of his major films, Nolan has assembled a terrific ensemble cast, comprised of established British acting legends (Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy) and exciting newcomers (Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney), all of whom commit and deliver.

And Harry Styles? Your eyebrows can be lowered: yes, he can act and he does a good job in Dunkirk. No one performer stands out, but plaudits must go to Fionn Whitehead, who carries much of the moral weight of the film.

As well as a loud and large staging of war, with thousands of extras cowering beneath real planes in the shadow of real destroyers, many of Dunkirk's most heart-pounding moments are the choices characters make and the questions they raise: what is the point of survival if you can't live with yourself afterwards?

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Christopher Nolan has long been a member of a select group of directors whose name alone is enough to draw an audience; no other director could convince an American movie studio to finance a blockbuster war film that has nothing to do with America. In Dunkirk, he has produced his greatest effort to date, a verifiable masterpiece that will no doubt loom large when awards season comes around.