Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, B arry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden.
Films like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge have given us gritty, visceral and harrowing depictions of the horrors and carnage of war, and the senseless loss of young lives, and they have raised the bar of the war movie genre. With his latest film Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, etc) again reminds us of the high cost of war, but he eschews the gory blood and guts depictions of those two films. This is Nolan’s tenth feature film, and confirms why he is one of the great filmmakers working today.
Dunkirk is set in May 1940, and focuses on Operation Dynamo, the effort to evacuate some 300,000 British and allied troops who were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk in the north of France after having been driven there by the advancing German army. With the tidal waters too shallow to allow boats to come close to shore, and any navy vessels being sunk by torpedos or Stuka bombers, the soldiers were essentially sitting ducks. In desperation, the Navy enlisted the help of civilian boats to assist in the rescue efforts as only small craft could get close enough to shore. A flotilla of small boats headed across the English Channel to the beaches of Dunkirk to help ferry soldiers to safety.
Although the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk has been recognised as a military failure, it was also an inspirational example of the fighting spirit of the British that helped them endure the Battle of Britain that was to follow, and it inspired Churchill to deliver his famous “We shall never surrender” speech to the House of Commons.
Dunkirk unfolds in a nonlinear narrative style that spans three distinct time frames and gives us a glimpse of the war on land, sea, and in the air. We follow the story of the young soldiers stranded on the beach at Dunkirk over the course of one week as they wait in hope for rescue. The story of the boats crossing the Channel takes place across one day. We also follow a couple of British fighter pilots as they engage the enemy planes to provide cover for the rescue attempt, and this takes place over the space of one hour as events on the ground come to a head. Nolan’s regular editor Lee Smith seamlessly and fluidly moves between the three strands. As with his earlier Memento and Inception, Nolan again cleverly messes around with time in his narrative. If you arrive late to the screening, you will miss the explanation behind these three time frames.
On the beach we follow the story of a young British soldier named Tommy (played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead) and his desperate attempts to board a ship to get home. In the air we are in the cockpit alongside pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy). And on the sea we follow Dawson (Oscar winner Mark Rylance, from Bridge Of Spies, etc) as he and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) set out in their small boat to Dunkirk. They are joined by local lad George (Barry Keoghan) who is eager to join the fray. Along the way Dawson also rescues a stranded shell-shocked soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) from a sunken ship, and his character gives us an insight into the trauma suffered by many soldiers.
Nolan is a visual stylist and his film is a visually strong and visceral spectacle, and an immersive film that takes us into the heart of war, the chaos and confusion without any hint of sentimentality. A lot of the scenes on the beaches of Dunkirk are almost dialogue free, which adds to the experience. The sense of fear and tension almost becomes palpable. The immersive sound design allows audiences to hear the bullets zing and feel every explosion, the screeching of metal as ships sink, and the hum of aircraft. Nolan has shot the film in a mix of IMAX format and 65mm, and he uses every inch of the screen effectively. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre, etc) gives us some truly spectacular visuals, and the aerial dog fight scenes in particular are spectacular and exhilarating. His use of handheld camera also gives us a sense of urgency and immediacy. Nolan has used practical effects where possible in preference to an overreliance on CGI, and the film is all the better for it.
Nolan has also cast largely unknown young performers as the British soldiers, adding to the very real sense of inexperience, naivete and fear that they feel. Newcomer Whitehead is good in what is largely a wordless role as the young soldier through whose eyes we mainly witness the chaos of Dunkirk. Much has been made of the casting of One Direction singer Harry Styles in his acting debut as another young soldier, and he does quite well in a small role. However, Nolan has pared the film back to an efficient 106 minutes, cutting out any real depth of characterisation here. Hence, we don’t get to really identify with many of the characters, which is one of the main quibbles I have with the film. We seem to be kept at a distance from them emotionally.
Nolan has also surrounded his novice cast with some big names to bring gravitas to the material. Rylance is impressive as Dawson, who is a three-dimensional character with a backstory, and we can emotionally engage with his character. Hardy, who has become a regular in Nolan’s films, is almost unrecognisable in his role as he spends most of his screen time hidden behind his pilot’s mask, and, like his Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, some of his dialogue is a little mumbled. And yes, that is the voice of Nolan regular Michael Caine we hear providing the voice of Farrier’s commander through headphones. Kenneth Branagh plays Commodore Bolton, a British officer overseeing the evacuation at Dunkirk, but he spends most of his screen time glaring intensely at something off screen, and he delivers most of his dialogue as if he is performing Shakespeare.
The other big quibble I have with Dunkirk concerns Hans Zimmer’s overwrought and bombastic score which is almost relentless and often threatens to drown out the action. More subtlety and nuance would have added to the emotional heft of the material.
Dunkirk is a powerful study of courage, heroism, sacrifice and survival. It an impressive and ambitious achievement and almost seems like Oscar bait. Nolan’s attention to detail in every department is certainly impressive. Some have touted this as the best war film ever made, but, ultimately this is a good WWII film without being a great one. If you can though, do yourself a favour and catch Dunkirk in the biggest cinema you can find as it enriches and enhances the experience.