Dunkirk **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Jack Lowden (Collins), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Harry Styles (Alex), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson), Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter), Tom Nolan (Lieutenant), James D'Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Matthew Marsh (Rear Admiral).
It can be hard to do anything truly new when it comes to War movies – one of the oldest genres in cinema, and in many ways one that hasn’t changed all that much over the years – except in the techniques that directors use to capture the life and death struggle of men at war. Christopher Nolan’s wonderful Dunkirk comes as close as anything in the last couple of decades (perhaps as far back as 1998 – when Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan – a film that many have tried to outdo in terms of pure carnage, and Terrence Malick made The Thin Red Line, a less influential, but greater, more meditative film). The evacuation of Dunkirk has become the stuff of legend in England – where, with the help of civilian vessels, the British armed forced evacuated hundreds of thousands of their soldiers, feared doomed, from the beaches in France before they could be captured or slaughtered by the rapidly advancing Germans. Nolan undeniably concentrates almost solely on the Brits – the French, also on the beach, are almost a nuisance, the Germans, a mostly invisible threat. The film thrillingly, and daringly, combines three different stories, over three different time periods, into one visceral and exciting package. Nolan, whose films in the past could be accused of being bloated, doesn’t leave an ounce of fat on Dunkirk – which runs under two hours, and uses every minute perfectly.
Nolan quickly establishes the three timelines - a week on the beach with the soldiers waiting to be rescued, a day on a private yacht, driven by a good Samaritan, his son and his son’s friend, who are sailing across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as possible – just one of countless others who did the same – and one hour in the plane of a RAF fighter pilot, trying his best to shoot down as many German planes as possible, before they can slaughter his countrymen. Nolan ratchets up the tension in all three timelines, until they come together in thrilling fashion in the closing minutes of the film.
If you are looking for a wide overview of the evacuation of Dunkirk, this really isn’t that film. This is a film that lives in that minute by minute, on-the-ground terror of the various people spends time with. The beach scenes center on Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), although if his name is actually spoken in the film, I missed it. He is just one thousands of men – and Nolan deliberately blends many of these young men together (seriously, they all look the same) because theirs isn’t a story so much of individuals, but all of them. If that sounds to you like it could result in a cold, less emotionally connected film – you’d be wrong. While it’s true that Tommy – and the many young men who accompany him – aren’t particularly well developed, they don’t need to be – and you do feel that overwhelming anxiety in them. The other two stories are more intimate – with Mark Rylance once again showing why he’s one of the best actors around, as an older man with his son, and a teenage friend, willing to risk it all to help with the effort. They come across a lone sailor (Cillian Murphy) – a survivor of a lifeboat where everyone else died in a U-Boat attack, suffering from “shell shock” – desperate to do anything BUT return to Dunkirk. All four of these men are sketched quickly, but you know everything you need to know of them. The same is true for Tom Hardy as the RAF pilot – once again, showing he is the actor you want to cast if you need someone to cover up three-quarters of their face for the majority of his scenes, and still find ways to emote effectively. I’m sure the people who couldn’t understand Hardy’s Bane, will have trouble here as well (but then again, I never did have trouble, so, what do I know?).
Nolan’s filmmaking here is impeccable. Dunkirk is a loud movie, with the constant explosions, and Hans Zimmer’s, brilliant, pounding score going throughout. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is the best work of his career, immersive in the best way possible. The structure requires the editing to be airtight – and Lee Smith’s work is remarkable.
In short, Dunkirk is a triumph for Nolan, and all involved. It only seems like he’s working on a smaller, less ambitious scale than some of his recent epics. Dunkirk is tight, intense, exciting and nerve jangling. It’s one of the best films of the year.