Christopher Nolan is the kind of writer/director who makes films that are easy to tell they’re his just by watching two minutes of footage without much in the way of context required. Dunkirk follows that tradition and is one of his most ambitious projects to date- which is saying something given his body of work. An account of the week-long 1940 evacuation of Allied forces from Northern France, he focuses on three stories told from sea, land, and air (which is in of itself a reference to the conclusion of Winston Churchill’s famous speech following the event), and gradually converges them into what I thought was a very exciting climax. The cuts between the arcs can sometimes be pretty sudden, so it demands the audience to pay attention, but I don’t think I was bored for a moment.
In the “Mole” story that places us on land, we follow three privates- Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who finds himself dodging bullets from German soldiers in an intense opening sequence as he makes his way towards the beach, a quiet young man named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who holds a secret, and an infantryman named Alex (Harry Styles) who is rescued by the two from a sinking ship. This segues into “The Sea”, detailing Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who chooses to captain his own boat when the crown commandeers it to help the men evacuate, bringing his teenage sons along.
Rylance’s role is basically a representation of the altruism and sense of patriotism displayed by many civilians during the war effort, and he has a breakout performance when he rescues a soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the water who’s escaped from the deadly beach and isn’t looking forward to getting anywhere near it again.
As the Spitfire pilot Farrier, Tom Hardy does most of his acting behind a mask for “The Air” while he engages in some (visually stunning) dogfights with Axis fighters, showcasing a unique talent for being able to keep the audience engaged with mannerisms and minimal dialogue. In fact, Nolan at one point considered working without a script, and it’s evident in the final product as outside of some opening text, there isn’t much in the way of exposition- everyone’s in a heightened state of panic and isn’t too concerned about being coherent.
This is an interesting and controversial style choice, one that I think might put some viewers off. I personally wouldn’t have minded clearer lines, outside of Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton consulting with officers and overseeing the evacuation. For what he’s given, Branagh has a solid performance and conveys some good emotion.
All of Nolan’s trademarks and specific quirks as a director as well as a writer are on display here. There’s not much in the way of comic relief to be found, he keeps an unflinching eye on the terror and drama of the evacuation. The graphicness of the content never actually reaches a level past PG-13, but Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and an intense, pounding score from Hans Zimmer work to create an atmosphere that is sometimes overwhelming.
Zimmer’s music in particular sounds more like angry, foreboding noise as opposed to anything harmonic, with grunting and groaning sounds in the background as Tommy, Alex and the other soldiers jump from a flaming ship after a torpedo strike and swim for their lives.
With movies like The Dark Knight, Memento, and Inception on his resume, Nolan is infamous for material that questions human nature and our usual perceptions, and this makes Dunkirk a departure as here he’s focused on a fairly straightforward heroism/survival tale. He approaches the events with what at times feels like a blunt lack of emotion, but luckily most of the performances are strong enough to where I definitely cared about most of the characters and hoped they would make it to safety. It markets itself as a throwback to the old style of major Hollywood projects seen in the 1950s, but at times it feels more like a disaster movie than a traditional war epic, as the men here are focused more on staying alive than conquering an enemy- though the events depicted here would eventually lead to such.
It’s got enough eye candy to where I feel it’ll be a perfect movie to watch on a big-screen television, but as a war film it isn’t quite as emotional as Saving Private Ryan, and I’m not sure if it’ll win over people who don’t like Nolan’s directing style to begin with.
Still, I did enjoy Dunkirk, and I’ll recommend seeing it because I feel it tries a number of interesting things. Not every single scene works, but for a film of this scale, its subject matter, and combined with how tonally unique it often is in comparison to the rest of his catalog, I think it’s worth analyzing.