This review is spoiler free.

It is perhaps predictable to say the latest summer war movie is “not like other war movies,” but I think on this occasion with Nolan’s Dunkirk, a case can be made.

Most war movies have a tendency to follow one character’s story through a battle or conflict. We learn their hopes, their fears, frustrations, and what they are fighting for back home. They are the audience’s window on the war, and we hope they survive the maelstrom because we feel we know them. The evacuation of Dunkirk presented by Nolan is a different beast entirely, a tightly plotted ensemble cast, weaving together multiple vignettes and perspectives of the battle to create a mosaic of the battle in its full tragedy, humanity and triumph. This film attempts to throw the audience directly into the battle, to feel dread and the anxiety ourselves.

This is achieved in part through the masterful, frenetic soundscape. Hans Zimmer’s music ratchets up a tension which never truly relents through an embedded, omnipresent sound of a ticking clock, emphasising the race against time, or perhaps how little time certain soldiers have left. The sound of gunfire and explosions is ferociously loud, as is the cries of panicked soldiers and the hellish shriek of Stuka dive bombers, serving to plunge the audience headlong into this experience. Exposition is minimal, mostly coming from Kenneth Brannagh’s naval commander figure on the Mole. Otherwise, dialog is minimal, allowing the stunning visual storytelling of Nolan to guide a viewer. This also grants a sense of realism to proceedings; these are professional soldiers trapped in a life and death situation; chats about the girls back home or some such would take us out of the moment. This would be less than welcome in a film which strives doggedly to a sense of authenticity in everything from costuming to physical props, to the sound Stukas made when screaming down from on high.

Nolan’s directorial fingerprint is indelible on this movie. Not just because of Zimmer’s awesome score, the painterly visuals, or the usual crop of Nolan’s favoured actors on top billing. His mark is mostly keenly felt in the way he plays with the audience’s perception of time, as he has done in some of his best movies, from Inception to Memento to Interstellar.

In Dunkirk, there are three main narratives strands throughout the movie, covering different periods of time; one covers a week, the other a day, and one merely an hour. The way the movie flits between these strands might initially wrong foot a viewer, but it very quickly becomes apparent what is happening. This unique presentation is no gimmick, but simply adds to the already strangling unease and desperation pervading the film, for characters and audience alike. Uncertainty is built as we cut between pivotal scenes, without knowing if characters survive or perish. Death might come to a character at any moment in this movie without fanfare or the comforting denouement most movies grant the demise of a main character.

One of the most memorable sequences follows Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot and his squadron. This is one of the most authentic aerial battles ever put to screen. The use of real Spitfires and plane-mounted cameras puts us squarely in the driving seat. The acknowledgement of the limited fuel and ammunition of a fighter are not only mentioned; they are pivotal to the overall plot. Tom Hardy is always great, even when he is playing a typically stoic WWII fighter ace whose mask remains on for much of the film. His calm and collected portrayal of a consummate professional taking life and death situations in his stride feels so real, and the dogfights in this movie are made all the more exciting for being well researched.

I consider Dunkirk to be one of Nolan’s finest works. Every frame feels meticulously planned, and at only 2 hours, this is a movie which feels lean with no extraneous filler material. Every scene has a purpose, every performance compliments another. It is also a war movie which manages to convey the absolute horror of the Second World War without having an R rating, which is a testament to Nolan’s craft in my view. One of the minor complaints I have of the movie is Nolan’s stringent lack of CGI, which ironically hamstrings his ability to show the true scale of 400,000 men on a beach, or the full scale of the fleets sent to recover them and meant we were unable to see more of the rear-guard’s story (incidentally, I was delighted Nolan did not forget about the pivotal role of the French in holding off the Germans whilst Britain evacuated the beaches). In his efforts to maintain authenticity, he may have compromised slightly on a realistic scale to events.

Go see Dunkirk on the largest screen you can, and experience the heart-pounding dread of this bleak moment in history for yourselves. Nolan has delivered the best Second World War movie since Saving Private Ryan, and is a future classic in the making. It makes me wonder what a Nolan Battle of Britain or The Desert Rats movie might look like. Get on that Chris, I cannot wait.