A war film that isn’t a war film, but more a story of comradery and amazing survival against impossible odds, Dunkirk—though only rated PG-13—is not for the faint of heart, nor for the average movie-goer expecting large action set-pieces and battles.
One has to remember, this story takes place at the end of the War for these men, really; their part has ended in the European Campaign, and now they’re just waiting for a lift home. That doesn’t come without its own perils, though, and director Christopher Nolan and his team make that very, very clear in the film.
This really felt like the 1940s. From the monochrome color palette, to the expert, period-accurate costuming, I felt like I was watching a documentary, more than a re-enactment. The effects are loud, largely-practical, and also work to engage and immerse the audience in the story. It’s loud and intense, but that’s what war is. The score, as well—which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same riff played on repeat at different tempos and octaves, throughout—is edgy and subliminally works at roping us in and making us uncomfortable. Though it’s not always audible, it’s always there.
The concentration on the characters and their situation, as I said, are an important factor in this film’s triangle storytelling. Three different stories—happening at three different times of the 24- to 48-hour period of the story—converge and overlap, sometimes showing the same events from different perspectives.
Tom Hardy is a British Airman, keeping the men on the beach and the boats safe from the air; Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and others make up the main cast of the “land” portion, fighting their own battles within and without their little group; and Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, The Wind That Shakes the Barley), along with Mark Rylance (The BFG, Anonymous), lead the “sea” portion of the story, as a soldier escaping the carnage of Dunkirk, and a homeland patriot volunteering his ship and his life for the cause of bringing these men home, respectively. Everyone’s performances are astounding, and no one is overplayed over anyone else—I think that’s the part I liked best. No one is given special screen-time just because of their veteran star status; everyone is on equal ground here. It forces the audience not to get too attached to anyone, but also get very attached to everyone, as human beings. It’s a maddening psychological game that Nolan plays, and he does it very well.
Some parts of the film dragged on, and I can see why folks didn’t like it or would be disappointed. They wanted a war epic, and got a look into the lives of soldiers just wanting to go home, and that even they are human, when it comes down to basic survival. The “faceless” Nazi troops that we do encounter is a nice touch. When we finally see them, it’s an Allied trooper’s face we’re focused on, which just further emphasizes that this film isn’t about the struggle against the Nazis, it’s about these men that can—quite literally—see their homeland from the beach, and what they’re willing to do to be there once more.
There isn’t a dialogue overload here, and I believe that that’s important to the storytelling, as well. Facial performances are key in this—even if it’s just Tom Hardy expressing discontent beneath his oxygen mask with a furrowed brow. Not much has to be said in a movie that’s thought-out enough to convey the story through visuals, primarily. Nolan’s expertise in the visual arts see that through, for this project.
Between the long-shots, excellent, symbolic internal framing, perfect casting and character-acting, and the director’s masterful camerawork, Dunkirk earns its ****/* ‘Risk Assessment. Christopher Nolan has done it again.
Next review: Valerian