An overwhelming, extraordinary filmmaking achievement, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is the dramatisation of World War II's famous Operation Dynamo evacuation in May and June 1940. The Dark Knight and Inception director brings to life the tremendously fraught and terrifying scenario in which close to 400,000 Allied troops found themselves surrounded by encroaching Nazi forces on the French beaches of Dunkirk. With death seemingly inevitable, it fell to a flotilla of British civilian vessels across the English Channel to help save the troops and bring them home again, victory snatched from the jaws of disaster. Shot on celluloid using IMAX cameras, the movie is a grandiose, handsome and harrowing experience that forgoes dialogue and memorable characterisation to throw audiences headlong into the conflict. Playing out through three different perspectives on land, sea and air, the movie has been hailed as one of the finest war movies made in recent years, with the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and newcomer Fionn Whitehead putting a human face on the drama.
Unsurprisingly given Nolan's reputation the movie is an immaculate technical achievement, from Hoyte van Hoytema's enveloping cinematography (especially in the jaw-dropping aerial sequences involving Hardy's Spitfire pilot, Farrier) to the ear-shredding sound design. The latter in particular is a vital character in the movie, ripping through the speakers as machine gun fire strafes the beach and aerial bombardments roar and subside with the sound of waves and pattering sand. Out of the latter emerges Hans Zimmer's score, sure to be one of the most contentious and intriguing aspects of the movie.
Zimmer's collaborations with Nolan have always proved divisive, whether it's the murky tone of the Dark Knight trilogy and its ostensibly simplistic two note 'theme' for Batman, or the unashamedly bombastic organ textures of Interstellar. That's not to say that the two are incapable of producing memorable score material: the closing 'Time' sequence of Inception is a rare moment where Nolan allows the music to carry the visuals (albeit heavily temp tracked with Zimmer's own The Thin Red Line), whilst Interstellar showcased a far more romantic, emotional side of their collaboration. Even so it is true that Nolan often favours tone and texture above all else, often regarding music as an extension of the sound design rather than a distinct entity in its own right. In the likes of The Dark Knight this was a problem, denying the superhero genre one of its key assets: a memorable theme for the title character. However in Dunkirk it's a different story: Nolan's intention is to simulate the chaos and terror of the situation and the music likewise is designed to sonically suffocate the audience, working in tandem with the sound effects.
For this reason it's one of the more dramatically and technically accomplished of their collaborations, working superbly in the movie even though as a standalone listening experience it's intentionally difficult and confrontational. Nolan has spoken extensively about the score's need to replicate the Shepard tone, in which the music ascends or descends in pitch without appearing to get higher or lower. The uncompromising approach is evident from the off in 'The Mole' in which a ticking watch (a recording of Nolan's own) merges with a haze of distorted strings. A groaning brass glissando, heavily processed as is Zimmer's way, creates a sense of dread and anxiety, setting us up for what's to come.
The remainder of the music is much of a muchness but there is more nuance than one might expect given Zimmer's bombastic reputation. A haunting trumpet in 'Shivering Soldier' lends tortured humanity to Cillian Murphy's shellshocked soldier whilst 'Supermarine' is a relentlessly building, uncomfortable mastaerclass in driving, tapping percussion, eventually building to ear-shattering heights. It recalls the eerie nature of the Joker's material in The Dark Knight. Even so tracks such as 'We Need Our Soldiers Back', 'The Tide', 'Impulse' and 'The Oil' tend to merge in a blur of escalating, harsh intensity, a brilliant dramatic feat within the context of the movie but a harder sell outside of it.
This being a Zimmer score, it's something of a group effort with tracks credited to the likes of Lorne Balfe ('Regimental Brothers') and Benjamin Wallfisch ('Home'). The latter's material is likely what listeners will return to the most, Wallfisch sensitively adapting the melancholic strains of Elgar's iconic 'Nimrod' from the Enigma Variations to honour the moral victory of the British civilians. Adjusting the tempo and temporal space of the music, the composer's work is a stirring and effective counterpoint to Zimmer's own material, reprised in the climactic, moving 'Variation 15 (Dunkirk)' and the 'End Titles'.
The Dunkirk score is one of those classic cases that throws film soundtrack reviewers into a quandary as to what matters most: the music's application in the film itself, or as a standalone listen away from it? The former is arguably the most important as the composer exists to back up the director's vision, and there's no denying that Zimmer and co have done that superbly here. When the score is heard in conjunction with the sound effects one experiences nothing less than an astonishing wall of noise, an extremely effective approach that has the audience cowering and flinching. Taken on these terms, the music is triumphant. Indeed, it's often hard to tell in the movie where the music ends and the sound begins (outside the more recognisable Elgar strains that is). Of course, whether the score has any longevity on its own terms is another matter. Technically accomplished as it is, it hardly makes for a casual listen. But then again, that isn't the point. Zimmer and Nolan have always made for intriguing if controversial collaborators and Dunkirk is another signature work that will surely do more to extend the debate about the role of film music in contemporary cinema.