UK Release Date: 21st July 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Tom Glynn-Carney
Synopsis: With hundreds of thousands of soldiers trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, a major rescue operation is needed to avert major loss of life.
The evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in 1940 is a true example of British spirit. Winston Churchill described the evacuation as a “miracle” occurring after the “colossal military disaster” that saw hundreds of thousands of military men trapped like sitting ducks on the beaches, waiting for the Nazis to pick them off. After the outer space spectacle of Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan has mounted his own take on this very real material, with one of his trademark wildly ambitious blockbuster projects. It’s a powerful movie, but one that suffers from a lack of character depth.
Soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) flees gunfire through the streets of Dunkirk and then befriends fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) when he makes it to the beach. With the help of a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh), men are being helped off the beach and into boats. Tommy ends up trapped with Gibson and private Alex (Harry Styles) when one of the boats sinks. Civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) is deployed to assist with the rescue effort along with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenager George (Barry Keoghan), picking up a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) along the way. Meanwhile, RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fight the Germans from above.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Christopher Nolan has produced a formidable cinematic achievement with Dunkirk. The film is a real feat of tension building in which every member of the technical team is on top form. Special plaudits must go to regular Nolan cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema who gets his camera everywhere, from floating above a beach littered with corpses to positioned right in the heart of a Spitfire cockpit. The visual tension is exacerbated by the best Hans Zimmer score in recent years, which gets right inside your chest and almost manually thumps your heart as the tension rises. A ticking clock motif in the background is a little obvious but, coupled with the deafening and utterly terrifying screech of the Luftwaffe, Zimmer’s music is perhaps the star of Dunkirk.
Nolan’s ambition cannot be faulted in any way. Rather than tell the story straight or stick to a single location, he allows the action to unspool across three separate timelines – a week on land, a day on the sea and an hour of aerial battling. While this strategy doesn’t always work and sometimes leaves the events feeling a little convoluted, it really helps with the tension as the frenetic finale winds into top gear. Nolan occasionally loses focus by cutting too frequently between the different timelines and it occasionally feels as if a choice to focus on one of the storylines might have helped fix the movie’s most troubling drawback. Dunkirk is about men in peril, but we never get to know any of them.
It’s a long held belief by many of Nolan’s critics – myself included – that he is a tin man without a heart. Dunkirk goes some way towards remedying that, with several moments of genuinely stirring emotion, but characters are entirely absent. None of them are given any room to develop beyond basic thumbnail personas and I had to Google every single one of their names when writing the above plot summary. These people are just faceless soldiers for the most part and so the film, despite its tension, maintains a certain clinical distance.
Occasional welcome flickers of character hint that another draft could’ve really fleshed these characters out into something interesting, but here they feel shallow – mere vessels for the story. Even Mark Rylance is only given approximately half of the room he needs to make his avuncular sailor work and it falls to Cillian Murphy to steal the show as a soldier driven to fury by his frustration at having to return to the thick of his fighting. Perhaps the most notable presence is Harry Styles who, although solid in the role, is an incredibly distracting presence akin to Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones.
As much as it might not boast the most compelling characters, Dunkirk is a terrific cinema experience that demands to be seen on the biggest and most impressive screen you can find. Nolan has conjured a remarkable visual and auditory experience that creates serious tension from its premise and, with the exception of the odd clunky line – Kenneth Branagh deserves a personal apology from Nolan for his dialogue – it’s executed very well indeed. Oscars almost certainly beckon.
Pop or Poop?
Ambition and spectacle collide to great effect in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. An ensemble cast of British stars do great work in a tense tale of desperate men trying to avoid certain death, but they are never given the opportunity to flesh out their characters. The action, though, is remarkable, with Hoyte van Hoytema’s lensing complemented by composer Hans Zimmer firing on al cylinders. With a bit more heart, this could’ve been a classic.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.