Dunkirk Movie Review


Andrew Clarke (@AwaitingAndrew)

Dunkirk is the latest film from Christopher Nolan, the acclaimed writer-director of Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy, and more. This film tells the true story behind the attempted evacuation of 400,000 British Allied soldiers on the waters of Dunkirk, France, in World War II. Dunkirk stars an ensemble cast that includes Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and yes, Harry Styles – more on him later.

Nolan’s film tells an interwoven story of the Dunkirk evacuation, an important part of World War II for the Allied forces. We follow Whitehead’s character, Tommy, on the shores of France attempting to escape and return home. We follow Royal Air Force pilots played by Hardy and Jack Lowden flying in to prevent the bombings and deaths of those still ashore and those attempting a return home on boats. And then we follow Rylance’s character, a noble mariner sailing towards the War with his son and a classmate in attempt to save anyone and everyone they can. Each of these sequences might be a bit tricky to connect at their expedition stages, but I found the editing between the three of them to be overall rather superb and each point of view is well worth the screen time that Nolan allocates.

Any Christopher Nolan fan, or frankly, anyone who has seen more than one of his films, knows the filmmaker likes to work with actors on multiple films. Dunkirk is his fifth collaboration with Murphy (Inception, TDK trilogy) and his third with Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises). And while I might be partial to each one’s performance in Inception, these two show why Nolan returns to work with them time and again as they, for me, gave the best performances in the film. Murphy gives a somewhat brief but fantastic portrayal of the shell shock of the horrors of war, while Hardy portrays the selflessness of a heroic pilot. Neither actor says a great deal but through their expressions they say all that needs to be told.

As the character we follow more than any other, Whitehead as Tommy is considered the lead actor in the film, and it’s truly a breakout role for him. Nolan’s script is rather short on dialogue, as he focuses in instead on the horrors in the midst of a war, and in particular hones in on the emotions and suspense that surrounds Tommy. Aside from perhaps the well-known Hardy (a favorite actor of mine), I was most invested in following Tommy and learning of his fate. I’ll be interested in seeing what Whitehead does next because he was fantastic. Now yes, Harry Styles of One Direction fame is also among the main cast. But much like Nolan’s casting of him, someone unfamiliar with Styles’ appearance would have no idea he played a rather prominent character. The film is truly more about the ensemble than a single character, allowing Styles to blend in quite well to his role. He holds his own despite the film containing Academy Award winners and nominees and is a welcome addition to the cast of Dunkirk.

One of the best parts of Nolan’s war film is its use of sound. Some of the negative reactions to Interstellar were due to the loud booming score in contrast to the quietness of its dialogue. While the sparse dialogue in Dunkirk has the potential to be a bit more distinct, Hans Zimmer’s score is more subtle and less showy – which is perfect for this film. It has the signature Zimmer touch, with “Home” being one of his greats, but builds with the tension of the film rather than being so much its own entity. What’s emphasized in this film to a haunting effect are the sounds of war, whether it’s a plane suddenly peering overhead and raining down bullets upon open targets or a rogue gunshot entering an area where people are hiding out. These sounds are made to be as loud as our characters in the film would experience them, and that’s part of what makes Dunkirk one of the most brilliantly tense films I have ever seen. Nolan, without focusing on blood and gore, truly presents the horrors of war for the soldiers who are in the midst of their fight for survival.

Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar) returns to work with Christopher Nolan as his cinematographer, this time being asked to carry a handheld IMAX camera around the beaches of Dunkirk. Thanks to Nolan’s emphasis on practical effects, everything seems real and is a spectacle to watch. The overhead shots of the beach and some of the external looks at the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft in particular are gorgeous. I saw this film in my local theater on opening night in order to see it with some close friends of mine, but I made a second trip to see the film in IMAX and must urge you to either do the same or see it in 70mm film, the way Nolan intends it to be seen. It truly felt like I was experiencing the same horrors as the soldiers on the beach and in the sky with the Spitfire pilots, making for a truly engrossing experience.

Dunkirk, at nearly an hour shorter than his previous film, features the shortest runtime for Nolan since his debut with Following. While I wouldn’t have been opposed to adding just a few minutes before the opening, Nolan makes fantastic use of this runtime as not a second of film is wasted. Every tension-building minute is quite well spent, as it rather literally hits the ground running and never lets off. The dialogue, while present, is rather sparse and our sympathy for this fantastic cast of characters is mostly limited to the emotion they convey on screen and Nolan’s putting us in their boots. Dunkirk is an immersive experience and one of the best war films I have seen in the theater.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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