The couple sitting next to me walked out halfway during the preview screening of Dunkirk. From where I sat in the middle of the theatre, I could see a few more at the front leaving their seats. They never returned.

I don’t blame them. For too long, we have been served with visual, empty blockbuster spectacles masquerading as films of cultural significance. Christopher Nolan too has been guilty of that with The Dark Knight Rises and to a small extent, Interstellar.

Dunkirk‘s trailer also promised an emphatic, stirring war epic with lots of heart-thumping aerial dogfights, gun battles and the eventual miracle of Dunkirk’s evacuation. The 106-minute, Nolan’s shortest so far, film is nothing like its trailer. In fact, the only sequence of blood pouring out from a body in the film takes place not in the heart of the battle but at a location you least expect. Yet, Nolan has managed to craft a jarring film that I dare say would get the late Kubrick’s nod of approval.

Dunkirk takes place in three locations – on the waters, in the skies and at the beach. British and French soldiers have been pinned down to a small section of the town of Dunkirk, and are desperately trying to make their way across the English Channel to escape the German juggernaut. From the start, Nolan drops you into the heat of the war with no explanation and no backstory, just the rhythmic bass beats of Zimmer’s score that gets more frantic as the soldiers frantically try to get away from German bullets.

This is a consistent theme throughout Dunkirk. Zimmer’s music is a character in itself and there is hardly any character development at all, as though Nolan is trying to say that survival is the only thing that matters. When soldiers do die, there is no melodramatic weeping, just the war-ravaged faces of British soldiers who push the still-warm body away and face the front, still alive outside for the moment but dead inside.

Of course, Nolan being Nolan, the auteur cannot resist making a smart film that breaks traditional movie timelines. It might be a tad confusing in the beginning but as Dunkirk plods on, everything becomes clear with the three separate narratives melding into one coherent timeline. Tom Hardy’s turn as a Supermarine Spitfire fighter pilot (those were actual planes being used) and Mark Rylance’s character as a withered boat captain deserve special mention. Hardy spends most of the film hidden behind a mask, something he’s probably used to after being Bane, but his eyes and hand gestures communicate all the emotions you need to know while Rylance’s quiet pauses and intense determination is a lot better than any script you can think of.

That’s probably the only criticism I have of Dunkirk. The script is somewhat lacking and the heavy British accents used in the film didn’t make it any better. But, I imagine Nolan did it on purpose. What was not being said was more important than what was being said and I must applaud Nolan for being bold enough to move the film forward without any heavy-handed exposition. After all, he did thank Warner Bros for giving a “British film an American budget” in a war film that doesn’t feature any triumphant American soldier riding in to save the day.

And that’s what I took away from Dunkirk, that war is not about human triumph or good versus evil (there was no German soldier shown in the film at all). It is gritty, dirty, messy and harrowing, but in the madness, small heroic acts can contribute to a miracle.

I pity the people who left. Dunkirk is brilliant, brilliant filmmaking and a throwback to the days of yore, when directors had a limited budget but unparalleled creativity and technique. I only hope you can appreciate that.

Dunkirk is out in cinemas islandwide now

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