For the majority of his career Christopher Nolan has thrived in surrealism, whether it be focusing on caped crusaders or unchartered space missions. So it’s intriguing to see him return to a narrative steeped in realism, and grounded by its commitment to real life occurrences. The results are staggeringly impressive too, while the talented filmmaker maintains his creative sensibilities, crafting a war movie that feels distinctively his.

Set in 1940, we watch on as 400 thousand British, French, Belgian and Canadian soldiers are stranded in Dunkirk, surrounded by the German army, and with little hope of survival. Desperately anticipating a rescue mission, wanting nothing more than to return to safety – time is running out, as enemy aircrafts fill the air, mercilessly dropping bombs on the overcrowded beach. Young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) finds allies in the form of Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), as they strive for survival. Whether that be through Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) on the ground, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) in his modest sized boat, or fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) – they just need to find a route out, before it’s too late.

DunkirkNolan throws us into the heart of the conflict without any context – and for many of the characters we follow around, we don’t even find out their names. And yet Dunkirk is a film that is immensely easy to emotionally engage with, as you care so greatly for those we do encounter. There are so many soldiers in this situation and these protagonists feel emblematic of them all. Nolan shoots the crowded beach often from high up, enhancing the overwhelming sense of how many there are desperate to survive. Especially when we hear the sound of planes above, and we see a collective of young men look to the sky, not sure if they’ll still be alive in a minutes time. A vast myriad of soldiers looking upwards – and yet you feel as though you can see each and every face.

The film is completely unrelenting from start to finish, with an intensity that never once waivers. Match that with the prevalent, foreboding sense of doom that lingers throughout, and we’re left with a production that is distinctly difficult to sit through. It’s enriched too by the incredible, pulsating score by Hans Zimmer, which seems to be consistently implemented throughout, replacing, in some regards, the lack of dialogue. It’s overbearing too, deafening at times, while the use of a ticking clock further enhances the suspenseful nature of the piece, reminding us that these poor young men may not have long left.

Dunkirk is just a masterclass in the art of storytelling, with a variety of different characters, in different places, fighting their own different battles, all intertwined as we progress, without any sense of contrivance. Naturally what transpires is a moving, devastating film, and yet it’s peppered throughout with the kindness and courage of strangers, to add a uplifting element to an otherwise bleak endeavour. But in this instance there really is no such thing as a happy ending, for even those who survive will be haunted and scarred by their experiences forever, and Nolan has crafted a film that, while on much smaller scale – vies to have a similar impact, as Dunkirk is not a movie that you’ll be able to shake off anytime soon.

Dunkirk is released in cinemas on July 21st.