OnScreen Review: 'Dunkirk'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Christopher Nolan has achieved that rarified air as a director that whenever he makes a film it is worth taking notice. He is one of the best directors currently working, is a champion of the film format over the increasing popular (and cheaper) digital format, and has incorporated more and more IMAX into his films. He is a master of his craft, and even when his films fail to live up to their lofty expectations (I thought Interstellar was flawed, though I need a rewatch) they are ambitious. I’d rather see a Nolan film that aims big and falls short than about 75% of the blockbusters in a given year. Nolan’s follow-up to Interstellar is a WWII epic, Dunkirk, a film about the nearly disastrous evacuation of British troops penned in by German soldiers in 1940.

Nolan weaves three narrative threads to tell his non-linear story. On the beach of Dunkirk (The Mole: One Week), British forces are stuck fighting to preserve the mole, the only location their military ships can dock and load men. This takes place over a week and focuses on Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a private amongst the 400,000 men seeking a way home with the approaching German army behind them and the English Channel in front of them. Sitting ducks on the beach, they have to scatter whenever a German plane decides to rain bombs or bullets on them. Through his various attempts to get off the beach he falls in with a group of soldiers looking for a way out, including Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles). Overseeing this desperate and perilous evacuation is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh).

The story from their vantage point features some of the most harrowing aspects of the film. The moments when soldiers turn their eyes skyward because they hear a German plane coming in for a run at them, and knowing that they have no place to hide are tense and nerve-wracking. Ships are hit by torpedoes and soldiers scramble to abandon ship before they are taken under with it. Some never even get that chance because they are below deck. The desperation is palpable. In one sobering scene, an unknown soldier drops his gear and simply walking into the ocean and begins to swim, never to be seen again.

The second thread of the story (The Sea: One Day) unfolds over the course of one day. The focus of this storyline is on the sea and the civilian boats that are enlisted by the Royal Navy to sail to Dunkirk and assist in the evacuation. As the mole is the only place for the naval ships to dock, and they are targets for German U-boats, and the water is too choppy for other military-sized vessels, these civilian boats can get closer and ferry men off the beach. This story takes place on one mariner’s boat, Mr. Dawson’s (Mark Rylance), who takes off with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young man who wants to help. On their way to Dunkirk, they come across a soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting atop a capsized, torpedoed ship adrift at sea. Clearly suffering from PTSD in the wake of being apparently the only survivor, he is reluctant to return to Dunkirk after leaving there.

The boat portion of the story is the heart of the film. Rylance is a guiding force through the choppy waters, not just the ocean waters but the emotional ones as Murphy’s soldier refuses to go back. Peter and George, due to their youth and naiveté, don’t understand that this soldier is not himself. Despite causing a tragedy onboard, there is a nice grace note extended to Murphy’s soldier in the end; a realization that he has seen enough and has enough of a burden to carry because of what he has experienced. The sense of duty, obligation, and patriotism to country and fellow countrymen is most felt in this portion of the story too.

Finally, the last thread (The Air: One Hour) is about the air support provided to the evacuation, told through a squadron of fighter pilots, primarily Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). They engage several German planes over the course of the film, and damage to Farrier’s fuel gauge, knocked out during one dog fight, looms over everything he does, because they need fuel not only to fly to Dunkirk and provide air support but to make it back as well.

The aerial portions of the film are thrilling. The dog fights in the air between these planes are great as Nolan places his camera right in the cockpit without making the audience nauseous (though I can only speak for myself). The audience is treated to a lot of POV shots here of these pilots trying to take down their German counterparts. And the stakes are incredibly high, as they often encounter these German bombers right on the cusp of dropping a bomb on a British ship. The lives of countless British soldiers hang in the balance in every one of these aerial fights.

The non-linear story is a little confusing, especially if you don’t know about it going into the film. However, the structure is intended to make all of the storylines reach their climax at the same time, and the film achieves the maximum result of that narrative decision because everything coalesces so well at the end in a swell of action, tension, emotion, and dazzling camerawork. The film is also very sparse on dialogue, devoting most of the films lean runtime of 106 minutes to the action and visuals. Thankfully, it’s also not the intensity of the opening of Saving Private Ryan stretched to feature length.

Make no mistake, though, Dunkirk is an unrelenting film. Nolan embeds the audience with these soldiers, these civilians, and these pilots and provides an immersive experience. You practically feel every bomb drop and bullets whiz by a little too close for comfort. If its non-linear story is initially disorienting, things eventually makes sense, as the stories have moments that overlap and in a few instances the same moment is seen from a different perspective. And that new perspective adds another layer of context to what was previously seen. Perspective and context are everything to a filmmaker and a story. It’s practically impossible to tell a comprehensive story about 400,000 men on a beach, but Nolan manages to find the right perspective on this historical moment. And it provides context on how an evacuation, which could be seen as a defeat, can be turned into a rallying moment of national pride, even if it is not a moment of victory.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars