During WWII the allied British and French forces are surrounded by German forces at Dunkirk in Normandy. Under a colossal amount of enemy fire and an escalating loss of life, the British mount a rescue operation for their troops. Christopher Nolan’s film follows four intertwining stories, each with its own set of protagonists playing their respective parts in this colossal and life-threatening undertaking.
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a British young soldier who befriends the French Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The latter has disguised himself in a British uniform taken from a corpse on the beach. Tommy manages to sneak him aboard a British rescue ship, only for the pair to land in even more serious danger when a German torpedo hits.
Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan) are another pair of young men, this time sailing across from England in a small fishing vessel captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), with the intention of bringing a supply of life jackets for their imperiled countrymen across the sea. Things take a dramatic turn when they pick up a shell-shocked soldier coming the other way (played by Cillian Murphy), who doesn’t want to return to the slaughter.
Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are two British Spitfire pilots who are flying into action to take down the German bombers slaughtering countless escaping troops. When Farrier is hit he crash-lands on water, and tries desperately to escape from the cockpit before his aircraft sinks.
The fourth plot thread focuses on Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) who stands at the head of the mole on Dunkirk beach as he marshals the desperate flight.
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A technically stunning achievement
On a technical level, Dunkirk is a fantastic achievement. Its rapid, rhythmic jumps between interconnecting parallel plot lines is, in many ways, similar to Inception. So, too, is its focus on flowing, tumbling action over dialogue, its coldly near-monochrome colour palette, and its ominously tense soundscapes.
However, here Nolan’s signature style is utilised to more overtly terrifying effect. In particular, both the soundtrack and use of sound design are fantastic. The incessant heartbeat noises of Hans Zimmer’s score coupled with the frighteningly metallic sound effects help to create an incredibly fraught atmosphere. Visually, the claustrophobic close-ups within crowds/interiors alternating with vast open spaces from where an attack can come at any direction help to keep the viewer on edge throughout.
The pacing is faultless, the evocation of the horror of war is truly disturbing despite the lack of overt Saving Private Ryan-style gore. If there’s any doubt about the magnitude of this horror from the viewer’s perspective, it will surely evaporate after watching the desperate, chaotic situations of young (barely adult) men drowning in a sinking ship, or getting burnt alive when an oil slick catches fire.
The entire cast (even One Direction’s Harry Styles, believe it or not) turn in believable performances without resorting to Oscar bait-style grandstanding. Tom Hardy might be the biggest name here, but he’s not given any more screen time than anyone else in the main ensemble and spends much of it acting with half of his face obscured by a pilot’s oxygen mask.
An “in the moment” movie
Dunkirk is very experiential and “in the moment” in terms of its narrative. It is telling that, despite the epic scope of the battle and the multiple character strands, it lasts for only 106 mins. It focuses leanly on the evacuation and those directly in the thick of it. The trouble is that this is a double-edged sword, as it never really goes deeper or wider than its own sensations.
There’s no larger back story to any of the characters and no real examination of how the wider world came into play during this fateful event. For this reason, it while it’s remarkable as a cinematic experience, it all feels a little hollow. If there was a bit more underpinning the various characters and events it might have made the startling depictions of devastation feel that bit more resonant. As it is, the amount of the latter throughout most of the running time feels more than is necessary for the film to deliver its message. There’s also an undeniable air of Union Jack waving towards the end, which fits in well with the film due to its historical context and subjective narrative POV. However, in a contemporary context, it does feel a little like a sop to Brexit-loving middle Englanders (even if that wasn’t the intention).
Nolan’s latest is certainly highly recommended, and well worth catching on its current cinema release since its audiovisual intensity will undoubtedly be diminished on home viewing formats. However, it’s not quite worth the current 94% score on Metacritic (based on 52 reviews).
Runtime: 106 mins
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Script: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Kenneth Branagh, James D'Arcy, Harry Styles