Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast Headliners: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, many others
Original Release Date: July 21st, 2017
The term “war is hell” is a term that has been explored through many films and media over the years. Particularly in the grand epic stakes of World War 2, where true stories are epic, dramatic, and sorrowful enough to provide inspiring, or harrowing, tales of warfare. Dunkirk names itself after the true Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Director Christopher Nolan takes his first attempt at a WW2 film, and the result is what one would expect it to be.
The stakes match history: in 1940, British and French forces had been pushed the edge of France (just a short while across the sea from Britain) by Nazi forces. From all sides enemy forces are hunting down the troops, and the situation seems dire.
The approach and intricate touch of Nolan is noticeable right off the bat. The movie plays, like Memento and Inception prior, with time and layers of storytelling. There is the aspect of the British ground forces leaving the beach including soldiers (in a way the main protagonist of ) Tommy(Fionn Whitehead ) alongside Gibson(Aneurin Barnard) and Alex(Harry Styles from pop band One Direction ) under leadership such as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy). Separately, there is the civilian family out at far sea of Mr.Dawson(Mark Rylance) and his helpers son Peter(Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George(Barry Keoghan) who meet an unnamed Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy). Lastly, there's the air battle in the skies above of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden).
These perspectives play with time and place, with events taking place either one week, one day, or one hour before a nexus point. It is however not really confusing, moreso a narrative puzzle that is intriguing to figure out , as often Nolan has. Things make sense in due time and the escalating tension of the plots is helped by big events ramping up and up. It's neat to see where the plotlines and timelines interconnect into each other once they eventually do.
This strong aspect of the movie ties together even strongly when considering the visual and audio treat of it all. Nolan's directing and camera work reaches some of the highest heights of his career. This ranges in a spectrum from the most real of intimate shots on the frontline, to the most beautiful and grey skies of the air foce combat. When water comes, it is claustropbic. Explosions and bullets seem within inches of the audience's fate. This leads to that “survival” aspect of the film more than most war films. This is aided by an amazing, layered score soundtrack by Hans Zimmer (as he always does) who's ticking strings and other instruments tie into the pulse of what s going down in the desperate stakes. Additionally, the audio design of everything is loud, realistic, and effective. Every inch of this is real and gritty...costumes, grey skies, somber music. It's an intense experience.
“Survival experience” would explain this film in another way in that , while it is brutal and dire, it is not so much a movie about action in that it is about reacting to action in a real way. The German Nazi forces are never humanized (this was apparently done on purposes) and mostly appear off-screen. This gives the movie a haunting, intense quality since danger can come from anywhere anytime, as it was likely on the real location of Dunkirk back then. The threats are fire, water, and so on due to that...it makes war an elemental force which is fitting in many ways. However a possible drawback is, there is not really much of a driving plot or storyline other than “survive and get out”. The vague experiences of the film due lead to some intense situations, but they are sporadic in the waves of conflict rather than having a definning character arc within that conflict.
The performances and characters within the film reflect that. It seems that usually in his films there is the coincidence of strong writing and acting. Even the (many) unnamed characters come across as sincere and momentarily memorable, as per Nolan tradition. No one really gets much dialogue to speak but that is in line with the ambience at play. When they do, there is some memorable players. Whitehead's Tommy is a bit of a generic young everyman but that may be the point..he does alright with what he's given and is an endearing face in the danger. This seem aspect can be seen in those accompianment such as Lowden's pilot Collins, D'Arcy's Colonel, and Glynn-Carney's Peter.
The standouts thus standout even more strongly. Tom Hardy's Farrier speaks perhaps the most little of all, but in his eyes and physical movement he gives a powerful and dedicate performance as any in his career. Branagh's Commander shouts orders and speaks quietly of grim things, but is emotional and sincere within it. Style's Alex shows the pop singer has some great acting talent.. he has a bit of brutish nature and swagger that makes him stand out amongst the British forces. The best dramatic scenes come from Rylance's Dawson (who is extremely wise, determined, and badass) and especially with Murphy's Soldier who is affected by regret and PTSD. The emotional feels will stick with the viewer long after the film in these cases.
In the pantheon of both World War 2 and Nolan films, there's been perhaps some better. It is not a traditional one of either. But what it is, is a finely crafted, slightly surreal and intense tale of courage and survival in a desperate situation. Bravo Nolan at your take. 9 out of 10