Dunkirk is a thrilling, visceral new Second World War epic from Christopher Nolan, the man setting the standard for intelligent blockbuster film-making. It will be considered a seminal adaptation of the inspiring story of cooperation. Nolan’s rendering of the British retreat from France after the Nazi advance is suspenseful with a capital S, but also a story of personal struggle and survival.

It’s an exercise in forthright narrative drive. Immediately engaging, the tension is mounted as we follow newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, a solitary infantryman, as he barely escapes capture, and French friendly fire. He arrives on the beach to find 400,000 English soldiers queuing into the sea in the desperate hope of being picked up and taken back home. We gradually become aware of the tic-tock-tic-tock of Hans Zimmer’s score. The combined effect of the knowledge that the Germans are coming, the expert editing, the forbidding strings and electronic gasps hang you on a high-wire and don’t let you down.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of war movies, and I’ve probably seen over 50 bombing scenes, but none have had the ability to make me literally duck for cover. This film is being shown in both IMAX and IMAX 70mm, and I’m sure in those formats, they have medical staff on standby to attend to those having their breath taken away, but I saw the normal digital projection, and I was still blown away. I don’t use that phrase lightly, by the way; “blown away” implies not only a suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of physical faculties. The bombs don’t just go boom, their screams pierce your ears and the drops shake your very core.

Like in Inception and Interstellar, Nolan trusts the audience’s ability to engage with complex story-telling. In this case, especially without gratuitous exposition and chatty nonsense. He does this through two devices: first, by having very minimal dialogue. In the last part of the film there is an extended sequence in which Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot has to make a risky manoeuvre, and we can follow every step of his decision-making process just by the editing. Nolan’s aim seems to be: if we can explain this aspect of the story without dialogue, we will.

Second, the story is told by three perspectives that intertwine, yet are told at different speeds. First we have the aforementioned infantrymen of Whitehead and Anuerin Barnard (who is suspiciously quiet), and their attempt to find space on one of the shockingly infrequent destroyers shuttling across the channel. On their adventures they meet Harry Styles, yes that one, who is actually very good. Kenneth Branagh is great as the supervising Admiral.

Then we are introduced to Mark Rylance, who’s the captain of a tiny civilian boat, intending to get to Dunkirk to help in any way he can. His mates, young men Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney, are the fresh faced idealists, too young to fight for their country but desperate to play their part. On their impossible voyage, they encounter a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy, a sole survivor of a sunken Destroyer.

Finally, we have the Dambusters part of the story. Tom Hardy is a reassuring presence as the fighter pilot Farrier, despite him only recognisable through goggles and dulcet tones. His flying mate is Scotsman Jack Lowden, and listen out for Michael Caine on the radio. Again, we’ve all seen Spitfires firing at minute specs in the sky on film before, but never before have we felt every shot and almost willed the planes to turn in time. And a word for the special effects; if there is any CGI at all, it was not noticeable.

In couple of moments this Pulp Fiction-esque timeframe screwing threatens to come apart, as we suddenly find ourselves cutting back and forth between day and night scenes, but once you’ve figured it out, it makes sense and you go with it. The individual stories are engaging in themselves, but they intersect at a key point in the real-life narrative, which forms the focal point of all the suspense. Everything collides into this one set piece that really pays off.

The peaks and troughs of suspense reminded me most of Gravity; you’re almost begging the film-makers to just give you a rest. Thank God they didn’t, because it’s a film you have to endure as much as be entertained by. Whereas the space thriller sometimes tested one’s patience, Dunkirk never feels exploitative.

Plus it’s a film that’s coy about its moral foundations until the very end. At first there seems to be nothing but hopelessness, but for all accusations of being a cold director, Interstellar showed us that Nolan has a gooey heart. You should keep that in mind if at any point you feel the despair too much.

Highly Recommended