Dunkirk makes for Christopher Nolan’s most intense and nerve-wracking thriller yet, delivering a strikingly terse viewing experience in the process.
Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, Allied soldiers fighting in WWII (including, the British and French armies) are surrounded on all sides by the German Army forces and must be evacuated on the beaches of Dunkirk, by way of an operation known as Operation Dynamo. On the ground at Dunkirk, British Army privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) are among those desperately fighting to stay alive and get off the beach, by whatever means available. Elsewhere, across the ocean, local mariners such as Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) are recruited by the Navy to help with the Dunkirk evacuation. Meanwhile, literally above everyone else, members of the Royal Air Force like Farrier (Tom Hardy) do battle with the German bombers, in order to help the Allied soldiers in their evacuation efforts.
With some 400,000 men on the beaches on Dunkirk and the clock ticking, time is of the essence for everyone – be they retreating on the land, sailing across the sea or fighting in the air. In the face of their defeat though, it starts to become clear: simply making it out of Operation Dynamo alive will truly be a miraculous victory in and of itself, for all concerned parties.
The latest directorial effort from Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk sees The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception filmmaker working in the non-fiction historical genre for the first time in his career. Nevertheless, the story of Operation Dynamo and the Dunkirk evacuation plays to Nolan’s strengths as a storyteller, allowing him to both further refine his sense of grand-scale spectacle and further explore some of the same themes (in particular, those of the moral and ethical variety) that he has touched on before, in his previous films. At the same time, however, Dunkirk is a more tightly-paced and intimate affair than some of the director’s more recent big-budget offerings in particular. Dunkirk makes for Christopher Nolan’s most intense and nerve-wracking thriller yet, delivering a strikingly terse viewing experience in the process.
Drawing from his own script here, Dunkirk once again sees Nolan exploring the concept of time through a narrative composed of three distinct threads, each of which unfolds both over a different amount of time (a week, a day and an hour, respectively) and at different points in the film’s timeline of events. While this plot structure does play to Nolan’s knack for both generating narrative tension and forward momentum through cross-cutting/editing, it further serves an important thematic purpose – allowing Dunkirk‘s central story threads to collide and overlap in ways that highlight the film’s themes of self-sacrifice, simple heroism and how sometimes survival is victory enough in times of war. Dunkirk works as a visceral, dig-your-nails-into-your-seat, cinematic thrill ride alone, but like all Nolan blockbusters there is an intelligent text to the proceedings here and a more ambitious storytelling goal in mind.
Behind the camera, Dunkirk reunites Nolan with his Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for the pair’s most impressive work of IMAX filmmaking yet. From dynamic aerial dogfights to explosion-fueled naval warfare sequences, Dunkirk paints its action on a broad canvas (having been shot entirely with IMAX cameras) – one that very much benefits from being viewed in the largest format available, be it an IMAX theater or the rare 70 mm screening. However, perhaps even more than the visuals, Dunkirk is enhanced by the heightened sound system afforded by IMAX theaters. Dunkirk‘s tense mood is fueled by its sharp, rattling sound effects and Hans Zimmer’s ominous ambient score (itself, driven by the sound of a literal ticking clock), making the sound effects as important as the grand imagery on display here. While it does have some issues smoothly blending its dialogue with other audio effects (similar to Interstellar before it), Dunkirk marks an overall improvement in the sound department for Nolan’s big-budget offerings.
Dialogue is one element that sets Dunkirk apart from Nolan’s previous efforts as a director – namely, there is much less talking in general here and few conversations of the overtly philosophical nature, like those found in Nolan movies past. Since Dunkirk is essentially a non-stop race against time for the vast majority of its runtime, there simply isn’t much room to spare for character development either. That being said, some of the main players here are provided with more depth than others and the ensemble cast is uniformly strong across the board, allowing Dunkirk‘s humans to feel like real people (even if we only know so much about them). Standout performances includes those from not only seasoned vets in Oscar-winner Mark Rylance and frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy, but also newcomers like Fionn Whitehead and One Direction member Harry Styles – who yes, delivers both a compelling and naturalistic performance here. And much like he did in The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy further demonstrates in Dunkirk that he can still deliver an expressive performance, even with his face largely obstructed for most of the film.
Although Dunkirk doesn’t have a clearly-defined protagonist the way that Nolan’s previous movies have, it does manage to provide satisfying arcs for the characters played by Whitehead and Hardy, as well as Tom Glynn-Carney in his smaller, supporting role. Similarly, acclaimed character actor James D’Arcy (Cloud Atlas, Agent Carter) and Sir Kenneth Branagh – playing high-ranking Allied army officials Colonel Winnant and Commander Bolton, respectively – make the most of their limited screentime, delivering noteworthy performances and making their characters memorable in their own right. Lastly, although he doesn’t appear in the flesh here, movie buffs who are curious as to where Nolan’s “good-luck charm” Michael Caine is to be found in Dunkirk, are advised to listen closely in the first act of the film.
Dunkirk is not only a step up for Nolan in terms of his craftsmanship, it also succeeds at being less narratively bloated than his most recent blockbuster offerings, without sacrificing their thematic ambition or intelligence at the same time. While Dunkirk is mostly a bloodless affair (hence its PG-13 rating), filmgoers should be advised: it is genuinely intense and an unsettlingly immersive experience that will leave you feeling like you’ve actually been in a WWII battle. That said, those who are game to watch a summer movie that combines the bone-rattling spectacle of a Transformers film with the clever narrative tricks and cohesive storytelling of, well, a lower-budgeted Nolan project, Dunkirk is definitely something that you shouldn’t miss in theaters.
Dunkirk is now playing in U.S. theaters (including, IMAX and 70 mm screenings) nationwide. It is 107 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
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