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A Review of Christopher Nolan's Film 'Dunkirk'

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Dunkirk (2017) written and directed by Christopher Nolan is a harrowing depiction of the famous British retreat from France. An event in which a fleet of civilian ships managed to rescue and return nearly three hundred thousand Allied soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk to the shores of Britain. Despite this grand premise of bittersweet triumph in the face of danger, Christopher Nolan presents the evacuation from a very human perspective that feels accurate to how the real soldiers involved in the conflict would’ve experienced it. The immersive war experience this creates is by far one of the films greatest strengths and something Christopher Nolan clearly devoted most of his efforts into perfecting. All of the films set designs are period-appropriate with Nolan even going so far as to use real-world war two era boats and planes to ensure every scene looked as authentic as possible. The sound design of the film is also extremely well done with the gunshots and explosions sounding appropriately loud and terrifying. Subtler details such as the shaking and rattling of the spitfires featured in the film also assisted in giving the planes the illusion of physical sensation, an effect which immerses the audience in the feeling of flying. These immersive qualities are part of what makes the films action sequences so engaging. Through such a realistic depiction of war, the audience can feel like they could truly be a part of the experience on scene.

Another strength of the film is its soundtrack and cinematic presentation. Hanz Zimmer’s score for the film is used to expert effect in order to build an ever-increasing sense of tension that builds continuously throughout the entirety of the film’s runtime. This effect of constant anxiety is largely thanks to Hanz Zimmers use of stylistic devices such as the metronomic ticking noise he weaves into the film’s score. Reminiscent of the sound of a clock, this constant and pervasive noise signals to the audience the sense that time is running out and that something is about to happen. Instead of building up to a point where the tension is broken however, the ticking remains constant and the audience is left in a state of permanent anxiety. Hans Zimmer also incorporates what’s known as Stanford tones into his soundtrack. Without delving into the science behind them these tones create the illusion of a pitch that seems to never stop rising. This rising pitch similarly builds tension, by subconsciously informing the audience that the tone is building up to some kind of climax. This climax also never arrives and creates an almost palpable atmosphere of dread and tension for the audience. This atmosphere suits the film’s exploration of how real soldiers would’ve experienced Dunkirk. The rising tension Zimmer imbues into his soundtrack serves to replicate the sense of impending danger of the repeated German bombings we see in the film. Through the atmosphere of the soundtrack, the sense of helplessness and anxiety felt by the film’s protagonists is able to be effectively conveyed to the audience. This both serves to make the film more unique and engaging but also establishes one of its key themes; the human cost of war.

Unsurprisingly given Christopher Nolan’s past work the film also boasts amazing visuals and cinematography. The entire film is one huge spectacle that’s able to capture the audience’s attention through the sheer beauty of its presentation of destruction. Every scene manages to be both visually pleasing and psychologically disturbing in their portrayal of the sheer brutality of war. This is partly thanks to Nolan’s decision to shoot in seventy-millimetre film, which has a wider aspect ratio than standard thirty five-millimetre films. In cinemas able to project in this format this allows the picture to be spread beyond the audiences field of view, helping to create the effect that we are truly a part of the spectacle. The film’s usage of wide shots also compliments its visuals, providing beautiful stretching shots that highlight the scale of the battle, and communicates the helplessness of the soldiers who appear tiny when contrasted against the sweeping landscape.

The film for all its strengths, however, is weakened by its complete lack of character development. Despite following the stories of three soldiers the dialogue in the film is extremely minimal and characters don’t so much grow and change as they do survive peril. Ironically Dunkirk despite its reliance on sound is reminiscent of silent film in its usage of visuals to convey characters emotions rather than dialogue. This minimal form of characterisation has varying effects on the film as a whole. On one hand, it makes it somewhat difficult to empathise with the protagonist’s situation when the audience hasn’t been given any reason to hope for their survival. This, in turn, makes intriguing action scenes less interesting to the audience who doesn’t have any stake in the outcome. On the other however it could be argued that this lack of characterisation allows the audience to project themselves onto the blank slate protagonists. Personally I find myself relating more to the former. As the film went on and the characters kept surviving dangerous situation after dangerous situation I found myself becoming disconnected from both them and the film as a whole. For me, there simply wasn’t enough motivation to care about these characters or the survival experience as a whole.

This disconnection for me was also partly the result of the films repetitiveness. Nolan continues his fascination with the flexibility of time in Dunkirk by presenting three stories that jump continually to different points of the evacuation. Whilst initially this allowed Nolan to maintain the film’s intensity by jumping between action scenes in each storyline. It later becomes convoluted when the storylines intersect and we see the same events from different perspectives. Nolan seemed to lack narrative purpose in doing this and experiencing the same action scene multiple times felt repetitive and dull.

The film overall is one giant spectacle that does certain things extremely well to the point where I couldn’t recommend not watching it. Whilst some elements I mentioned detract from the experience the cinematography and sound design are reason to experience this film.

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A Review Of Christopher Nolan’s Film ‘Dunkirk’. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 17, 2022, from
“A Review Of Christopher Nolan’s Film ‘Dunkirk’.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022,
A Review Of Christopher Nolan’s Film ‘Dunkirk’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 May 2022].
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