At the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film ‘Dunkirk’, we hear the ticking of a watch begin, and continue whether explicitly or suggestively for almost the entirety of its 106-minute length. We feel time marching on, time moving forward, time running out. As Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his companions struggle to find any way they can to get off the assaulted beaches of Dunkirk, as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his young crew sail as fast as they can across the English Channel, as pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) pushes his Spitfire to the edge of its limits, we feel our stomachs tighten, our breath quicken, our hands dig further into our seats. As that watch ticks with repetitive, detached certainty and as the many threads of the film begin to converge, we the audience, held in the vice-like grip, are left at the mercy of the film itself, one that leaves behind the conventional ideas of film-as-pure-entertainment for the belief in film-as-experience.
‘Dunkirk’ is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. After honing his skills as a filmmaker of scale over the Dark Knight Trilogy, he brings everything he has learned to bear on one of the most remarkable experiences any filmmaker has offered the cinema since Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006). Rarely have all the mechanisms that make up a film converged together to create a more visceral, elemental assault on an audience, from Hoyte Van Hoytema’s jaw-dropping, logic-defying cinematography to Lee Smith’s unforgiving editing to Hans Zimmer’s dizzying, disorienting score. Because it’s Nolan, you know that what you’re seeing isn’t the work of a computer but of remarkable in-camera special effects, and there are sequences in this film that still stagger me, whether it be an IMAX camera shooting from the wing of a Spitfire, the beaches of Dunkirk erupting in explosions or multiple battleships sinking into the Channel, with hundreds of men scrambling to escape them like ants.
That the film is a technical marvel should come as no surprise with Nolan’s reputation, but where ‘Dunkirk’ confirms itself as his most impressive feat to date is in the depth and scope of its emotional impact. After showing us his soul in ‘Interstellar’, Nolan crafts ‘Dunkirk’ into a story of survival and heroism devoid of cheap sentiment. With the screenplay stripped back to the bone, our understanding of these ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances is writ across their faces, hardened by determination and blind fear. Words have no use in the film’s enormous canvas, and by showing us rather than telling us, it lets us into their experience and allows us to feel it with them. As the film throttles towards its extraordinary climax into its final minutes, I found myself overcome with emotion, breathing sharply as tears rolled down my cheeks.
As a testament to the men trapped on the beaches on Dunkirk in 1940 and those who rescued them, ‘Dunkirk’ is a powerful portrait of great heroism and a demonstration of how history can be depicted on screen in a dynamic and affecting manner. As a cinematic achievement, it’s one of the most extraordinary we’ve seen in many years, reminiscent of films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. It represents the breadth of what cinema is capable of, and establishes Christopher Nolan as more than a great popular filmmaker, but as a great artist. It’s also one of the most nail-biting, breathless, edge-of-your-seat films you’re ever likely to see. Frankly, the whole thing is a goddamn marvel.
As the film throttles towards its extraordinary climax... I found myself overcome with emotion, breathing sharply as tears rolled down my cheeks.
PICTURE & SOUND
Since much of ‘Dunkirk’ was shot with IMAX cameras, the 1080p transfer fluctuates between the film’s theatrical ratio of 2.20:1 and the fuller-screen 1.78:1. This has been the case with all of Nolan’s IMAX shot films, though because almost the entirety of the film was shot in the format, the ratio switch happens less often. The quality of the image is remarkable, incredibly sharp but maintaining the organic feel that comes with being shot on film. What struck me most was how rich the colours were, something I hadn’t noticed in the theatrical run. It’s one of the more noticeably striking transfers I’ve seen on Blu-ray in a while.
As with ‘Interstellar’, we’re only given a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track with the film, but it’s also top-notch. Sound is integral to building the world and telling the story in ‘Dunkirk’, especially because there’s little dialogue in the film, and this track packs a hell of a punch almost as assaulting as in the cinema.
A film like ‘Dunkirk’ inevitably loses something when not seen on the big screen, but as far as Blu-ray presentations go, this release goes a damn long way to replicating the experience. The film is also being released on 4K Blu-ray, which I imagine will be even more impressive.
All features are relegated to a second disc, consisting of sixteen featurettes covering the enormous challenges faced in the making of the film. The featurettes are broken up into five and can play in blocks in categories, ‘Creation’ (22:19), ‘Land’ (16:39), ‘Air’ (18:30), ‘Sea’ (36:57) and ‘Conclusion’ (15:19), but the main menu Play All function offers them as a single documentary, running at 1:49:46. Warner Bros should be commended for offering so many ways to play the featurettes in sequence, as not having these Play All options would have made the disc a frustrating experience.
The content in the featurettes is really terrific, covering in detail all aspects of the production. Much of my love for ‘Dunkirk’ was wondering how they pulled the film off in the first place, but discovering the secrets behind the film only increases your respect. All major members of the filmmaking team are featured, along with extensive behind-the-scenes footage. Nolan’s films don’t always have the best collection of special features, but the content created for ‘Dunkirk’ is a terrific companion to a remarkable film.