Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Directed by: Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Memento, Inception)
Synopsis: After the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, 30,000 British soldiers struggle to evacuate the coastal town of Dunkirk.
What works: Say what you will about Christopher Nolan, the guy knows how to make stunning films. I can honestly say that this is the most beautiful looking World War II film I’ve ever seen. I know that sounds weird and crazy but the cinematography is superb. Whether its on the dreary beach head or on the barren sea or in aerial shots with the Spitfire planes, this movie is gorgeous. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie look this good.
The story is stark but powerful. There’s very little dialogue and with a break-neck pace of urgency there’s no dragging at all. From the first moments we meet the young British soldier, Tommy catching propaganda leaflets dropped by the Nazi’s, it feels like every character is racing to get away from danger. The many thousands of foot soldiers waiting on the beach desperately seeking salvation from ships to take them back to England all look and feel like they’re being tormented as they wait. Great Britain didn’t have enough ships available to rescue the soldiers so they had to commandeer civilian vessels and Mark Rylance, his son and friend are the film’s sole representation of that. And again, tension mounts as they race against time to get to Dunkirk, avoid enemy planes and as an added issue they rescue a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy who struggles with PTSD and conflicts with them not to go back to Dunkirk. And Tom Hardy’s is the focus of the third plot as an RAF pilot fighting enemy planes and struggling with his plane’s faulty fuel gauge. There is nothing in this film that is extraneous. This is Nolan’s shortest movie and he really trimmed the fat off. There’s no love interest back home scenes, no viewpoints of the enemies, no political backstory about how Churchill or his cabinet worked out the details. Hell, there’s really no character development to any of the characters we follow in this film. You might be saying “but isn’t that a bad thing?” Ordinarily yes, but given the point to this film—a dire and seemingly hopeless situation—there’s no time (or point) to develop these characters in the risky and tense scenario they are dealing with. From start to finish, this is a race to survive and the cast is in fight-or-flight mode the whole time.
Again, Nolan uses his lucky charm, Hans Zimmer who makes one of the best war movie soundtracks ever. I’m listening to it now and instead of writing this review I want to run around and do something heroic. It’s great intense workout music. This score is very repetitive with a lot of staccato notes that sound like, appropriately, a ticking clock. It’s like if you paired Philip Glass with a heavy metal band.
What fails: I have nothing negative to say about this film. I can totally see how a lot of audiences would have no interest in it though. The lack of dialogue, lack of character arcs and a strange and separate three time-elapsed plot narratives could confuse some people I suppose. And just the fact that it’s a WWII movie about British soldiers may turn off American audiences as well. And hard to get the ladies interested since there’s not one female character at all in it. But believe me, it’s never dull and for what it lacks in character narratives it makes up for in suspense and edge-of-your-seat thrills.
Overall: As a history and war buff I really enjoyed this film and can’t wait to see it again. It’s as if Christopher Nolan made the best History channel documentary dramatic reenactment film. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan this film will not disappoint. And if you’re on the fence about his films or disliked some of them, this film will possibly steer you closer to seeing his cinematic prowess. I always have my critiques about some of his movies and his quirky stories (the cloning in The Prestige; tiny astronauts in bookshelves; Bane) but I always admired his craft and thought he was a superb filmmaker that made top-notch entertaining and thought-provoking smart films. Here, with Dunkirk, there’s very little thinking involved; just a war-time rescue operation that builds and builds like a great big tense snowball.
Score: 9 “Michael Caine has to be in this film somewhere, right?” (out of 10)