Director Christopher Nolan is heralded as one of the best film-makers of our generation, but his last release – Interstellar – didn’t receive the universal acclaim of some of his other works. But he’s back, and this time tackling a war movie, doing what he always does as he takes the genre film and tries to create something fresh and exciting with it. Based on real life events from the second world war, can Nolan produce another genre defining piece?
Dunkirk is about the British forces in World War II who were trapped in the titular city by the Germans in the earlier stages of the war, with the narrative jumping between two young soliders trying to escape, a pilot trying to protect the evacuation from German bombers, and a civilian boat sent to help with the evacuation. Each subplot is faced with different challenges that threaten to derail everything they’re working towards, and these challenges are relentless, providing both the protagonists and the audience with very little time to breathe. There’s no warming up here, the movie starts by throwing you into the grips of a tense fight for survival and continues that way until the very end.
Where this movie shines is in the cinematic presentation. The gunfire and engine screams from fighter jets above are turned way up in an effort to draw you into the reality of war, assaulting the senses whenever the tension picks up. You feel an attack through the sound. It is also a gorgeous movie, whether surveying the scene from above as the Spitfires fly over to the visceral fear in the eyes of the soldiers as they try to cling on for dear life. There is a lot of emotion captured on the screen, and this is achieved both by the visual direction of Nolan and the talent of the actors.
And it’s a good thing there is plenty of visual emotion, because Dunkirk doesn’t have time for verbal storytelling. There is a real scarcity of dialogue throughout the movie, to the point that when we do get a monologue or extended discussion it feels really out of place. It’s realistic since these men are just trying to survive or do their job, not portray themselves in shorthand for a viewer to relate to them, but it does come at a cost of any real character building and backstory – making it difficult to really become attached to any of the people on screen. There are one, maybe two characters who get any real depth to their character, primarily Mark Rylance’s character Mr Dawson.
One of the main characters for example spends most of the movie constantly in some kind of life threatening peril, and while the moments are no doubt tense, it’s hard to really care whether he lives or dies because you only know him as a guy in peril. There’s no real story or identity, and with other people dying left and right the only reason we have to care about him over the others is because the camera is on his face. The cast itself does a good job though. With so little dialogue they need to be able to genuinely emote, and they do manage this, even less experienced actors like Harry Styles. It is a shame though that Tom Hardy has so little to work with as most of the time is face is completely obscured by his pilot’s mask, but there is some fantastic build within his subplot that is essentially storytelling 101, and is achieved through showing rather than telling.
The movie focuses on the event of war, rather than the people. And the event takes place through three different time frames, so within the near two hour runtime the actual timeline tends to jump around to tell a stories that go for a week, day and hour respectively. While ultimately it is a necessity in order to tell the story, there are moments where these moments overlap at different points in the movie, and it can get a little confusing when trying to piece everything together mid-film. When you piece moments together it’s rewarding, but it does also result in a slightly messy experience.
Nolan has made some masterpieces over the years, but Dunkirk might end up being the most divisive. It feels like a real representation of war is like, and the unrelenting bleakness and importance of hope that surrounds it. In that respect, it should be highly praised and maybe even shown in schools to help teach the harsh realities of World War II. But as a narrative film meant to engage the audience, there are too many problems here for it to really stick. The entire cast is pretty forgettable, and so much of the tension built up through the story doesn’t translate to caring for our heroes. This isn’t a big action spectacular set during World War II, but nor is it a deep character study. Instead it kind of feels like an artful documentary on the horrors the men stationed on Dunkirk had to endure – which has real value. There is a lot to appreciate, and some people will adore what the movie achieves. But for me, Dunkirk just doesn’t hit the mark.