Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a colossal war drama of epic proportions that will leave you both physically and emotionally exhausted.

Dunkirk, in one word, is a masterpiece. It’s a colossal tour de force epic, a war drama the likes of which haven’t seen the light of day since the mid century. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, yet to put a foot wrong in his directorial lineage, this is a film which will likely join the ranks of The Dam Busters and The Bridge on the River Kwai as one of the best war films, not to mention cinematic visions, ever realised.

The film’s non-linear timeframe charts the rescue mission that inspired Churchill’s infamous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech, namely to retrieve the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers and their allies trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk by the surging force of the German army in May 1940. With the destruction and dearth of ships to rescue the soldiers, civilian vessels were called into action to bring home the stranded soldiers.

Dunkirk demands to be seen on a big screen. Shot in 70mm IMAX, the full scope of the images can only truly be appreciated in the form Nolan and producer Emma Thomas wanted us to see it, on an IMAX big screen. From the very opening shot of the empty streets of Dunkirk, and despite dissenting from the snobbery of Cannes over Netflix’s submissions, it has to be agreed that watching a film this loud, and this immersive, on a laptop simply wouldn’t quite cut it.

The film requires full surround sound to appreciate the extent of the carnage rained down upon the shores of France; when a plane begins to roar somewhere far off in the distance, you hear every click of its engine. When a breath is withheld for fear of the bullets of the enemy, you hear every escape of air. Moments of silence or quiet in the film are rare and precious despite there being little dialogue throughout. Only one moment at the end of the film is left unaccompanied either by the ambient noise of howling bombs, the chugging of boat engines, the screams of the dying, or the intense and continuous score by Nolan favourite, Hans Zimmer.

Zimmer’s absorbing and emotionally straining score is both hauntingly cathartic and frighteningly tense, agitating every bodily surface to a state of permanent goosebumps. Zimmer isn’t the only Nolan regular. Joining him are cast favourites Cillian Murphy, portraying achingly a shell shocked soldier pleading with his rescuer (Mark Rylance) not to go back to Dunkirk, and Tom Hardy, who proves yet again that he is able to deliver a powerhouse performance by acting with only his eyes.

Kenneth Branagh’s stalwart, upright British commander desperately watching over the beaches as scores of his men are gunned down by enemy fire is what you would expect of the veteran. Perhaps most surprising is the performance given by newcomer Harry Styles’ of former One Direction fame. As Alex, and as one of the characters with the most lines, Styles performance is so natural as to render his boyband status almost unnoticeable after any initial scepticism is surmounted. His delivery is complimented by the staggering, largely silent performance delivered by Fionn Whitehead, or Tommy.

At under two hours, the film is a constant attack on the senses; there are few moments of calm, and when they do come they are partnered with the apprehension of Zimmer’s score. Like our soldiers, continual rigidity is the only way to maintain composure in preparation for when the next bullet is fired, or another plane darts out of the sky. This sensory overload is exacerbated by the point of view camerawork inside the Spitfires as they fly towards Dunkirk which, combined with the non-linear timeframe, provides for a disorientating experience.

As you might expect from a film about the Second World War, Dunkirk features a largely male cast, and the depths of masculinity are plumbed as our characters, young and old, discover what it means to be a soldier. This is driven home most obviously in the contrast between Murphy’s anonymous soldier prior to and after his ship being sunk, but perhaps most powerfully by Barry Keoghan. A young ship boy, his character jumps aboard Rylance’s vessel in the hope of contributing something and appearing in the local paper, leaving the idyllic comforts of the home front for war.

With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has outdone himself, delivering a war film of epic proportions. Enormous set pieces, an astounding audio visual experience, and no doubt a fair amount of camera trickery combine to create a film which leaves you both physically and emotionally exhausted by the end, begging its viewers to reflect on just how tragic the reality must have been.

When film students and cultural historians look back at this film in years to come, they will ask why it was at this point in time that Dunkirk was made. Why when Britain is walking a political tightrope, cracking eggshells with every step and trying to hold together not only the fractured political backbone of our own United Kingdom but also quell the squabbles with and between our fractious European allies, was a film about identity, so nostalgic, patriotic, and with such a message of unity made and met with such success?

When the Dunkirk evacuation had ended, Churchill praised it as a “miracle of deliverance”. As Tom Hardy watches his Spitfire go up in flames, we are reminded with bittersweet finality that there was no deliverance for so many who fought, whether they lost their lives or not. Nolan has brought to the screen a film that does their stories testament.

★★★★★