Victory in Defeat
Dunkirk is a World War II drama directed by acclaimed writer/director Christopher Nolan, starring an ensemble which includes newcomer Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, and Mark Rylance. The film depicts the real-life events of the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, where hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers were pinned down on all sides by the German forces in Dunkirk, a small commune on the coast of France. The film shows ordinary British civilians attempting to use their own boats to conduct a daring, collaborative rescue mission, while a small number of pilots from the Royal Air Force struggle to defend the Allied troops against German air attacks. The story of Dunkirk is thus told from three different perspectives: that of the ground troops (Whitehead, Styles); civilians travelling to Dunkirk by sea (Rylance); and RAF pilots flying their Spitfires through the air (Hardy). As time runs out and the German forces start closing in, players on the land, air and sea must persevere through perilous conditions in a last ditch attempt to return home.
At the time of the writing of this article, if there’s one director in Hollywood that can attract a wide audience to the cinema by name alone, it’s Christopher Nolan. Sure, Spielberg, Scorsese and Tarantino are big names. But few directors resonate with millennials more than Nolan, who is likely in the ‘Top 5 Directors’ list of many young people today. Consistently innovative and constantly engaging, Nolan is known for making immersive films. Films that are often self-referential and gradually feed us information from the protagonist’s point of view. Films that explore the human spirit and psychology (think the Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar) with expertly written screenplays. Moreover, after the low audience/critic response to the BFG, Silence and the Hateful Eight, Nolan is one of the few star directors that can consistently make big-budget films which are critically well-received AND are commercially successful. With his first war film and his first film based on true life events, can Nolan follow his previous magic acts by leaving us with yet another experiential memento?
If anyone is expecting the type of Nolan film where Tom Hardy and Harry Styles are actually the same character, but 20 years apart, then unfortunately you’ve been misinformed. Dunkirk is essentially a collective biopic, following the events of the evacuation as Nolan tells it. While the film places less emphasis on character development, it places great emphasis on the spectacle of the event, putting us in the shoes of the individuals who risked their lives for their country. Nolan called Dunkirk his most experimental film since Memento, and it shows in the best of ways. Through excellent cinematography and a harrowing score, Dunkirk is not the war film you might expect, but a war film in which the desperation, tension, fear and hope felt by those involved are excellently portrayed on screen. While arguably not one of his best films, Dunkirk, like Memento, is another great achievement in cinema by the fantastic filmmaking mind of Christopher Nolan.
Styles and Substance
Despite strong characters not being a strength of Dunkirk, one could imagine that a director of Nolan’s calibre meant for it to be this way, as the characters portrayed on screen may not necessarily be real, but they represent the actual individuals who had to survive a similar ordeal. Fionn Whitehead’s foot soldier represents one of the 400,000 people stranded on the beach, whereas Mark Rylance represents one of the many civilian captains making the decision to cross the channel into perilous waters. They are still memorable characters, not because of what they say, but because of the position they are in and the role they represent. Even Tom Hardy, who has less than 10 lines in the film, still comes to mind when thinking of the Spitfire pilots in the film because of his influence on the battle below (and his star power, of course). The other individual performances are solid all round, with former One Direction artist Harry Styles far exceeding expectations despite his limited screen time. His believable performance silenced all doubts on his acting ability, and time will tell if the solo artist has more range to complement his dramatic chops.
Dunkirk is most impressive in its technical and musical aspects. The film would not have been as good as it was without its nail-biting score, one from the legend that is Hans Zimmer. Though not at all memorable on its own, its pairing with scenes accounted for incredible bouts of tension, suspense and thrill. The ticking clock heard in the background maintains the intensity of every scene it’s involved in, whereas each soundtrack provides its own flavour to the unrelenting nature of its screenplay. The film’s editing is unconventional and plays smartly with timeframes while keeping the narrative understandable. The film also looks beautiful despite the greyness unfortunately and commonly associated with Britain. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, delivers yet again with shots that at times captures the scale of the film’s event, yet also the claustrophobia and hopelessness of being in varying degrees of isolation. One simple example of this is the juxtaposition of the RAF pilots cooped up in a cramped cockpit, while beyond that is the wide open sea. In addition, the scenes taking place in and around sinking ships are the most thrilling, making us marvel at how Nolan and van Hoytema committed to throwing us into the thick of that situation. To that effect, Nolan’s use of IMAX cameras attached onto actual planes and in the water is commendable, highlighting the director’s advocacy of 70mm film.
You Can Practically See It From Here
As for flaws, Dunkirk doesn’t have many that are immediately recognisable, save for the fact that many viewers will already know the final outcome of this battle as well as the war. While this may take a lot of the excitement out of the film, the execution of the film still makes the story wildly compelling. At 106 minutes, it is Nolan’s shortest film since 1998’s Following. While it properly showcases the British perspective during the ‘allied’ evacuation, the film would have adopted a more inclusive nature had an additional 10 minutes (or more) been added to show more of the French military involvement in the event. Little was shown of the French efforts in guarding the perimeter in Dunkirk, and as the death toll for the French reached the hundreds of thousands, it’s no wonder that French critics were offended by the film, and it would be interesting to hear Nolan’s viewpoint on the subject.
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Dunkirk manages to explore the horror of war in a very human way. A way far different from the gore depicted in the recent Hacksaw Ridge (2016). No more violent deaths and exaggerated explosions than necessary, and no unnecessary character backstories that distract from what the film wanted to be: a realistic interpretation of what it’s like to be trapped in a war. Nolan yet again revisits very human values, making a film which showcases the human spirit, perseverance and patriotism during a time when confidence regarding the war effort was low. Dunkirk was indeed a turning point in the war, and as a man familiar with turning points, director Christopher Nolan nails his first war film from a technical perspective. Though his creative choices in the screenplay are historically questionable, the current critical buzz should see Dunkirk perform to studio expectations, leading us to that exciting final question: What will Christopher Nolan do next?
Overall Score: 7.8/10
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Nick Oon (author) from London on July 23, 2017:
@Ryan Many thanks again for your kind comments. I shared your excitement as Chris is one of my favourite filmmakers too! I really hope you enjoy the film when you get round to seeing it
Nick Oon (author) from London on July 23, 2017:
@Louise If you love historical dramas and war films I would completely recommend it. A very intense film indeed
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 22, 2017:
I've heard a lot of good reviews about this film, I wouldn't mind watching this.
Ryan from Louisiana, USA on July 22, 2017:
I cant wait to see this film. I am excited because Nolan is one of my favorite film makers. To step out of his usual science fiction style and adapt a war film has me super excited. Thanks for the great review.