Christopher Nolan’s been wanting to tell this story since the 1990s, and it’s a very unconventional story for him. Not only is it his only war film, but it doesn’t have the heavy ideas and plots that are typical of his movies. However this works to Dunkirk’s advantage, resulting in a movie that feels like a classic war film, but still presented in an interesting way.
Completely covering the Dunkirk evacuation, the film tells three stories simultaneously that take place over different ranges of time. The first follows British privates (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) attempting to escape Dunkirk on their own over a week. The second, taking place over a day, covers a British privateer (Mark Rylance) sailing across the Channel to rescue the men on the beach. And the third sees an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) spending an hour shooting down Luftwaffe planes to allow the ships to depart with the escapees.
This movie is very focussed on the events concerning Dunkirk, throwing you right into the action from the get-go, and the way it divides its time among the different parties reminds me of war movies like A Bridge Too Far. This allows for multiple perspectives of the same event and a greater exploration of said event, the details on the battle and evacuation being very precise. But the most surprising constructive device of this movie is how it uses sparse dialogue, relying a lot on visual storytelling. This is incredibly unusual for Christopher Nolan, whose biggest weakness can often be his penchant for excessive dialogue and grandiose monologuing. And I’m very impressed by this departure. Nolan knows the action itself, the circumstances and emotions speak for themselves. That being said, while I like the non-linear storylines, they aren’t conveyed entirely well. It’s never made clear these threads take place over longer periods of time until characters from one storyline interact with another, such as the introduction of Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked officer.
There’s also problems with regards to characterization. Few characters are named in the film and many don’t have much of a personality. But keeping in the tradition of classic war movies, this is an ensemble piece. Of course Nolan regulars Murphy and Hardy are good (Hardy once again being under a mask for the majority of his screen-time), and there’s even a brief Michael Caine cameo to spot. But there are also exceptional performances from Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy as the commanders on the beach, and Jack Lowden as another RAF pilot. The younger actors do okay, Styles being most notable for his pop music background, but none really stand out or do anything new with their performances. In fact theirs is probably the least interesting storyline, until they end up on an abandoned boat. The best performance and most interesting character by far is Mark Rylance as an older man volunteering his boat, and embarking on a quest with his son and another local boy, to rescue as many as possible. The drive behind his eyes is palpable, and considering he’s not a part of the army, his heroism shines more through. His small crew also works well off of the always devoted Murphy. I’d have been completely satisfied if the movie just followed this troupe.
Dunkirk is a very skilfully directed film. Not only are the effects quite good, but the action is great. This film accurately captures the fear inherent in the circumstances; often when bombers flew overhead, soldiers were trapped on the moles and could do nothing but hope the bombs wouldn’t land on them. There’s a perfect moment of hopelessness when the young leads witness one man just walking into the ocean to drown. The dread and sense of urgency is really present, you feel as trapped as the people on the beach. Hans Zimmer’s music is a bit overblown but the sound editing is amazing and the cinematography is great -particularly in how Nolan shoots the dogfights. The opening sequence too, which follows Whitehead’s character through the town of Dunkirk trying to dodge enemy fire, no matter how unconventional his route becomes, while propaganda flyers fall, is a great exercise in tension building. And of course this film ultimately has a heavy streak of British patriotism. But it’s at least a refreshing change from the overt American patriotism of war movies of the last number of years.
I didn’t like Nolan’s last two movies, but Dunkirk has restored a degree of his reputation in my eyes. It’s easily his best movie since Inception, possibly The Dark Knight. And though it does have problems in its characterization and storytelling device, it’s a well-executed and loyal telling of what took place at Dunkirk during those critical ten days in 1940.