Film Review: Dunkirk
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s film is rooted in real events, but it’s not so much a war movie. Rather, it’s a suspenseful thriller about the “miracle” evacuation of almost 340,000 soldiers and officers stranded on Dunkirk beach in France. Facing aerial attack and the impending arrival of German troops, thousands of British soldiers, some of them boys, follow the discipline of the army as they wait, not knowing how they will get home.
This is a Nolan film, so some time-twisting is to be expected. The Nolan touch of not being entirely linear comes into the screenplay as you view events unfolding in three places—on the beach, in the sea and in the air—three timelines that, at some point, merge.
Dunkirk is the story of the mammoth evacuation of soldiers, mostly by private boats steered by their civilian owners from England. They bravely went into war territory, selflessly risked their lives and those of their families, to bring back the stranded soldiers.
Set in 1940 during World War II when the enemy has isolated the Allied soldiers (namely the French and British) to the beaches of Dunkirk (Nolan actually filmed in the same location in Dunkirk from where the evacuation happened), the broad event is true, but the specific stories and characters in this ambitious film are fictional.
Nolan spotlights not the scale of the evacuation as much as the individual experiences of those caught in it, committed to it and victims of the situation. Even the camera is loyal to their perspective. We see what’s going on, experience a little of what they must have felt, from the viewpoint of a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead), an older civilian, Dawson (Mark Rylance), steering his boat, and an experienced fighter pilot (Tom Hardy).
Dunkirk does not have the stark brutality of Saving Private Ryan, but the way the characters in the film react to bombs, gunfire and death shows their desperation. Nolan uses some of his favourite actors in key parts, like Cillian Murphy and Hardy, putting the latter in a helmet and mask for almost all of the film just like he did in The Dark Knight. Kenneth Branagh also appears as an admiral managing the retreat. Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy and Barry Keoghan add support.
Nolan is not known to give in to sentimentality anyway, and there is none of that in here either. You are not invested in any individual character because you don’t know enough about them. Whitehead comes the closest—his youth and vulnerability standing in stark contrast to the cruel world of war. You don’t really root for a character except perhaps for Hardy as the only Brit fighting as opposed to the others who are fleeing.
Some of the best moments unfold on Dawson’s boat, Moonstone, and in the Spitfires where the pilot’s heads and faces are covered, and yet they manage to convey so much with barely any words. There’s a design to Nolan’s vision too. Observe the lines of men quietly waiting for a miracle, stifling their fear as they duck from dropping bombs and stare into the ocean that is their only way back home.
The script successfully steers clear of the politics and jingoism associated with war. However, no film on Dunkirk can be complete without reference to Winston Churchill’s impassioned “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in Parliament. Nolan deftly juxtaposes this with a young soldier’s disillusionment and embarrassment at having been useless, returning home a loser rather than a hero.
Hans Zimmer’s score coupled with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork, editor Lee Smith’s breathless pacing, shattering sound effects and minimal dialogue (the opening scene is almost without any spoken words), Nolan brings in all the sound and fury necessary to convey the drama and uncertainty of war.