Christopher Nolan returns with his 10th feature, Dunkirk, a film set during the infamous World War II Dunkirk Evacuation. Lawrence, Lee and ex-Film Faculty critic Mark Putley reviews.
You’ll no doubt agree that me saying “War is Hell” isn’t exactly ploughing virgin territory, but it’s a concept that I never seem to tire of; every war movie needs That One Scene where it’s made abundantly clear that war is a miserable and horrific experience and every time, without failure, I completely eat it up. Dunkirk does this on two occasions with only a 12A rating, something which I always thought was too much like having your cake and eating it to be truly effective (I’m looking at you, Wonder Woman), yet Dunkirk manages it.
Dunkirk tells the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, where after the disastrous Battle of France, the Allied powers are trapped with their backs to the sea near the eponymous village, and an overwhelming Wehrmacht force are tightening the noose. This leaves the British with 400,000 men trapped on a beach with the waters too shallow for friendly destroyers to reach them. It took a flotilla of “little ships”, about 700 small private ships requisitioned by the Navy and captained by military and civilian volunteer alike to come to their rescue under heavy Axis fire, while the RAF provided overwatch. Interestingly, we never actually see any Axis forces in this film, barring the faceless Luftwaffe; they’re presented more as an oppressive, ever-encroaching antagonistic force than any human presence. Of course, this is only appropriate, as far as the boys on the beach were concerned, that’s exactly what they were.
One of the defining military strategies of the Second World War was the use of combined arms: each branch of the armed forces working together simultaneously to bring about a complementary outcome for each. True to form, the film takes place from three main perspectives: The poor bastards on the beach, whose perspective takes place over the course of a week, a “little ship” yacht sent out to aid the stranded soldiers, whose perspective takes place over the course of one day, and the RAF fighters sent to shield the transports, whose perspective takes place over the course of a single hour; these stories each being weaved into a single thread. My, my; did you think that simply because this is a grounded WWII thriller that Nolan hadn’t found a way to continue his ongoing fixation with complex time dilation mechanics? For shame! He claims it was the best way to incorporate the three stories together within a single narrative, but at this point I’m starting to suspect he’s The Riddler, and it’s all a neurotic compulsion.
Still, I can’t fault him for making sure we’re paying attention as we watch. Expecting the audience to keep up has always been a mark of a Nolan production and he’s gone on record to state that he chose the Dunkirk Evacuation precisely because it flies in the face of traditional Hollywood wisdom. Dunkirk wasn’t snatching victory from defeat so much as it was snatching survival from the jaws of immediate destruction. Had the Army been wiped out then, there would have been little stopping the German war machine from steamrolling Britain. What’s more, there’s no Americans, not even a token one to slap on the US posters. Perhaps my biases are showing, but any big-budget endeavour that thumbs its nose at the focus groups and Hollywood formulae is alright in my book.
Hans Zimmer returns as Nolan’s composer; the soundtrack makes frequent use of the Shepard’s Tone to complement the howling Stukas that haunt our protagonists. This is accompanied by the recurring use of a ticking clock (a bit transparent as audial metaphors go but it gets the message across). The bombastic score certainly fits the dire narrative, but it’s overenthusiasm can at times prove distracting; I admit I had some difficulty hearing characters speak at times. It’s just as well the script is so sparse.
Other than Zimmer, the usual Nolan suspects are present and accounted for: Tom Hardy as the RAF pilot Farrier, Cillian Murphy plays an unnamed traumatised soldier, even Michael Caine gets a brief audio cameo. No doubt you’ll be wanting to know about the Harry Styles thing; don’t worry, he does a good job. If that’s not enough for you then at least take solace in that you’ll barely recognise him, he cut his hair and everything. Christopher Nolan claims he hired him on the strength of his audition alone and didn’t know who he was. I think Christopher Nolan is a liar, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying Style’s performance. To be honest, everyone does a fantastic job; Mark Rylance as the owner of a little ship, Kenneth Branagh as Cmdr. Bolton, even newcomer Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, the protagonist of the army thread, puts up a good show.
Taken purely from a buyer’s guide standpoint, it’s well worth your time if you like war films, thrillers, or are just a Nolan fan. If you’re of the latter group you’ll be pleased to hear that the manufactured sentimentality of Interstellar is nowhere to be found here, despite the general “bring the boys back home” ethos. Just be wary though; at the risk of giving too much away, if you’re particularly hydrophobic or claustrophobic, you might want to screw your eyes up at a few moments. If “War is Hell” then this is the ninth circle: wet, freezing, and enclosed.
(Note to Ed – You like that Dante at the end there? Bitches love my man Alighieri).
Religious symbolism packed far into the background, exposition trimmed to a hearty five minutes or so, a timeline experienced from three different perspectives that converge at a single point – Dunkirk is unlike any war film you’ve yet seen.
Experiential rather than consequential, director Christopher Nolan once again delves into the human condition for further adventures in philosophy, though perhaps not nearly as obviously as his previous effort, Interstellar, and that will likely be what wins over the masses. Instead, we get roughly an hour and a half of (mostly silent) human misery, separated only briefly by small bursts of triumph, heroism and pathos. The important thing is that it works and it carries itself well.
Returning collaborators Hans Zimmer and Hoyte Zan Hoytema form a trifecta with Nolan’s writing and direction under the single ambition of introducing tension to a near-wordless film, and often the results edge close to horror, so perhaps safe to call it a success. Purposeful, frantic strings and ambiance meet precision-framed action as ships fall, seas burn and all the while an unseen evil can snag escape away at any moment, and that unseen element firmly drives home the sheer hopelessness of the evacuation.
The choice to centre this fictional/composite narrative during the Dunkirk evacuation, however, proves too large a scale for Nolan’s specific ambitions. No event escapes the director’s unspoken voice, as he attempts to make commentary on how the evacuation was handled while also quietly absolving the parties involved of any shady practices and betrayals, an outlook that proves either biased or naïve.
Nodding to but quietly hushing the abandonment of the French in favour of a boastful tale of courage and survival from the perspective of the British makes for an uneven account, the film attempting to point out the inconsistencies of war without making a consistency of the practice itself. Solemn nods and a character sacrifice that is both underplayed and wholly fictional does not make for a great account when kids are being taught in school this is how Dunkirk played out.
It smacks of old war film bias, which is a real shame because the actual intention belying the film has almost nothing to do with Dunkirk itself, suggesting that perhaps the film need not have been set in this real-war no man’s land.
Brave though he is, Nolan’s eventual submission to traditional war film practices even as he attempts to circumnavigate them detracts from the global view of what the film actually is: a well-made, gripping, well-intentioned work of vision that, unfortunately, sits quietly under the shadow of a series of real-world issues and accounts that simply cannot be generalised.
Perhaps not as unlike other war films as first acclaimed, but certainly more watchable than most. For those informed, have at it; there’s still some truly great work here.
Dunkirk is a rare piece of cinematic storytelling; a tense and deeply moving film about the 1940 evacuation of the British Expeditionary and French forces from the beach of Dunkirk.
Directed by Christopher Nolan, his non-linear approach (reminiscent of his earlier film Momento) depicts the events at Dunkirk through the standpoints of the soldiers, pilots, civilian sailors, and commanding officers involved in the evacuation from Northern France.
The film begins in a particularly haunting fashion. The streets of Dunkirk are abandoned, a weary group of British soldiers seek water and scraps of food, hundreds of enemy flyers reading ‘WE SURROUND YOU’ descend from the sky, and apart from the flutter of paper in the breeze the street is silent. The opening scene alone is an immensely gripping piece of filmmaking which sets a standard for the rest of the film.
Although a constant danger and a very real presence in the film, Nolan decides that German soldiers should remain unseen throughout, keeping the focus on the 400,000 stranded and their efforts for survival. It makes for a thrilling account of the events in 1940, all the more so when reconsidering this year’s Hacksaw Ridge, which, as powerful as the film is, gave the impression that Mel Gibson had a preoccupation with the violence, rather than concentrating on character depth and storytelling. Nolan has mastered a certain type of subtlety that still delivers an impactful statement on the realities of war, and the sacrifices made.
With all-round success in casting (and yes, this also extends quite surprisingly to Harry Styles), it’s truly hard to highlight specific performances. Nevertheless, Fionn Whitehead puts in a fantastic performance as Tommy, a private in the B.E.F seeking withdrawal from Dunkirk. Mark Rylance is utterly captivating in his portrayal of a civilian boat captain answering the call to help those trapped, whilst Rylance’s onscreen son Tom Glyn-Carney adds sincerity and compassion through his character Peter during some of the more difficult scenes.
French film critics have criticised Nolan’s lacking consideration of the French involvement in the evacuation of Dunkirk; I must agree that I would have liked more thought or focus drawn towards French soldiers, rather than the briefest of references at the beginning. I can understand why French cinemagoers might be perturbed by the film’s downplay of the sacrifices made by their ancestors.
The film shines a bright light on an astounding point in history, a time which should never be forgotten. In terms of cinematic history, I can only hope that Dunkirk is remembered as a great moviemaking achievement – perhaps even getting an Oscar nod or two next year. The enduring tension, along with wonderful performances, stunning cinematography, and immersive storytelling makes Dunkirk a must-see movie of this year.