Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, James D’Arcy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh
Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
Based on the real event during World War II, and one of the most disastrous military missions in British history, Dunkirk is told through the perspective of three different viewpoints with imagined characters director Christopher Nolan made up, and a few characters that were based off real people. However, that doesn’t make Dunkirk any less of an important history film. I personally didn’t know anything about the real event at Dunkirk, and held off reading anything about the event until after the movie. This isn’t also your typical Nolan movie either, which makes the experience so much better. So let’s not waste any more space and get to what makes Dunkirk so damn good.
Nolan does do some experimenting with this film as it jumps across three different timelines that weave together in a slow fashion – all of them dealing with the British evacuation of Dunkirk. There’s the shoreline nicknamed The Mole, which takes place over the course of a week and follows British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and a fellow soldier he comes across played by Damien Bonnard, as they try to get out of Dunkirk. There’s “The Sea” that takes place over a day and follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan) who sail to Dunkirk as a rescue party and pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) along the way. Finally, “The Air” which takes place over the course of an hour and follows British pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) who provide air support for the ships.
One of the things you obviously notice right away about the film, despite big names like Hardy, Murphy, Rylance, James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh appearing, they are nothing more than supporting roles. Although, I’d make the argument that Rylance is one of the leads of the film, but I’ll leave that up to you. Also, considering this is a war film, you’re probably expecting buckets of blood and a hardcore brutal look at war like Saving Pirate Ryan right? Well, you don’t get that. However, you did get something better, for the lack of a better word – a cold, relentless and unforgiving look at war.
There never is a real safe place in their film, which adds to the tension every time we get what could be a moment of peace. Combine that with Hans Zimmer’s amazing score with a ticking clock that is both unnerving, but blends right into the scenes perfectly. Considering that, I was surprised like most people were that Dunkirk’s runtime is only an hour and forty-six minutes. Not that war films have to be long, but even with that “short” runtime, Dunkirk tells the story it is trying to tell.
I don’t know if people will see this as a negative, but Nolan doesn’t really get into any back stories of the characters. Everything is very in the moment, despite the non-linear narrative Nolan is putting on. You get a sense on who the characters might be by their actions, but Nolan doesn’t really give anyone an exposition dump to tell their story. The only real person that gets a ton of dialogue is Branagh’s Commander Bolton who is trying to get everyone out of Dunkirk. The other characters like Whitehead’s Tommy, who opens the film, can be seen as the lead of the film, but since the film jumps around I was okay that he wasn’t the central focus – but again that could be me
That said, the cast is great with everyone holding their own and not stealing the spotlight from anyone. Whitehead spends the majority of the film with Harry Styles, who surprisingly is not that bad. This could easily be seen as stunt casting, but the singer isn’t bad in his acting debut. Cillian Murphy is terrific as the soldier pleading with Mark Rylance’s character to turn back and go home. Speaking of Rylance, he does fine job as Mr. Dawson and his two main co-stars Barry Keoghan as George and Tom Glynn-Carney’s Peter. Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy as the pilots are only involved in the dogfights, which are great and enthralling to watch.
Even with the great cast, this movie belongs to Nolan and the crew. Specifically, the already mentioned Hans Zimmer and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who gives us the massive scope, but captures the intense dread and desperation of the characters, especially the ones on The Mole as they hear the German planes fly over them dropping bombs on them.
All in all, Dunkirk is an intense film that doesn’t let you go until the very end. Christopher Nolan was able to do something different in the war genre that I hope people appreciate and find the nuances with the great cinematography and score.
4.5 out of 5