Film Review: Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan

Genre: History/ Thriller

Cast:  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh.

Christopher Nolan’s films often tend to stray from reality. Inception immersed us into its complex dream world, Interstellar took us on a mind-bending sci-fi ride in space, and most obviously, The Dark Knight trilogy was a comic-book-inspired fantasy adventure. Even the deeply psychological drama that was Memento, which was praised for its accurate and realistic portrayal of memory by Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch, felt larger than life, a puzzle demanding to be dissected. Not that this necessarily takes away from the quality of these films, especially since they are infused with humanity. But none of them feel as real as Dunkirk. 

The reality we witness on Dunkirk is that of war, or rather, disaster. The specificities of World War II are suggested but do not stay at the forefront of the film, the focus instead being on an indefinite yet undeniable and dreadful brutality. The opening text does not name the Germans but refers to them as “the enemy”. As a product of war, this enemy is an inexplicably inhumane force, one whose face we never actually see but whose implied presence is nevertheless extremely powerful and overwhelming. It is depicted more as a horror villain that could be lurking anywhere: we sense the Luftwaffe planes looming above, we fear the possibility of submarines hiding below, we hear the bombs falling. In a film dominated by silence, the soundscapes that sound designer Richard King provides are uncanny, especially paired with the spine-chillingly horrifying score from longtime Nolan collaborator Hanz Zimmer, who returns in top form. There is no need for all the bloody, gruesome detail, and it feels like a conscious artistic choice, not an appeal for a PG-13 rating. The effect is still deafening, tense, and visceral.

Dunkirk is also an ensemble work, one filled with familiar and unfamiliar faces that coexist in the same trapped space, sharing the same purpose, fate, and namelessness. One could criticize the film for lack of character development if it weren’t for the way it builds atmosphere; it fixates not so much on the event, as some may say, but on the terror experienced by the people both as a massive collective whole and individually. The impersonal nature of the film never restricts us from empathizing with every character. Even though there is no protagonist, there a few of those characters that stand out, namely Tommy, a young British soldier on land played by Fionn Whitehead with an understatement that is rarely found in a newcomer. Boy-band-member-turned-rock star Harry Styles, who is surprisingly given a lot of screen time for a first-time actor, delivers an impressively honest and emotional performance as a private named Alex, while the much more experienced Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Gordon, who oversees the situation on Dunkirk. And I would argue that we do see characters develop as the consequences of war begin to subtly influence their behavior, at times bordering on madness, an example being Styles’ character growing anxiously paranoid of his surroundings.

Though the camera often follows the movements of the soldiers, it captures more of a feeling; hopelessness, anguish, guilt. The how, when, and why is almost secondary. There is never a sense of hatred or antagonism pervading the characters, and what Dunkirk makes clearer about the worst conditions of war is that what persists is the basic instinct of survival. There are no winners or losers, only everyday heroes (interestingly, the name of Whitehead’s character is slang for the ordinary British soldier). Surviving, as a blind man plainly remarks to Alex’s bafflement, is enough.

The way the story of the Dunkirk evacuation is told is unsurprisingly unique. Nolan understandably favors a more straightforward approach this time around, but he doesn’t abandon his signature style, as the film is nonlinear and compelling, while everything comes together in the end in the most Nolasque way. The story is told from three perspectives, showing us the events on land (or rather, the mole) covering one week, on sea covering a day and on air covering an hour. On the one hand, we see the vastness of the beach, populated with lines and lines of soldiers, then the scope narrows to show us the journey of one of those many non-Navy, civilian boats that were called for to rescue the soldiers. Meanwhile, watching the course of the three RAF Spitfires as they encounter German fighters offers the most adrenaline-fuelled, thrill-inducing experience of the three storylines, the camera alternating between POV shots and close-ups on the pilots’ faces – one of them, named Farrier, is played by Tom Hardy, and though for the most part, we can only see his eyes, his expression constantly suggests shifts in emotion. If there’s one problem with the script that can be a bit distracting, it’s that the dialogue, while not badly-written or flawed, doesn’t always match up with how strong the movie is visually and narratively, rendering it barely necessary. Of course, the technical skill Nolan has as a filmmaker is no less apparent in this film, and with the help of Hoyte Van Hoytema, cinematographer of Interstellar and Her, what he has created is a masterful spectacle. Every 70mm frame feels more like part of a visual poem than a blockbuster. Dunkirk is haunting and immersive, capturing the essence of war like few movies ever have.

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