Dunkirk is extraordinary. It’s a film, yes (a real film, but more on that later), but also an event and an experience. It should be seen in IMAX if at all possible, as with much of director Christopher Nolan’s previous work, it needs to be experienced as a gestalt of sound, image, and thought.
As most would know before seeing it, Dunkirk covers the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France to England in one of the most dramatic military withdrawals of all time. Nolan presents the story from three perspectives: the traditional divisions of land, sea, and air. But he puts a different time frame on each story, presenting the stories in one week, one day, and one hour, which makes for added energy and occasional confusion; Dunkirk becomes our modern-day Intolerance, crossed with the scope and beauty of Lawrence of Arabia.
There are three groups or individuals followed in Nolan’s telling. We have three very young men, one of whom is virtually silent, and another of whom is One Direction’s Harry Styles. The last is Fionn Whitehead, who has been getting a great deal of press as “the lead” in the film. All three young actors are fine, but none has what one would call a breakout role. Nolan films have good performances, but these are director’s films.
The “one day” portion is headed by the wondrous Mark Rylance (upset Oscar winner for Bridge of Spies), a stage legend who thankfully has chosen to also work in films. Here he anchors (no pun intended) this segment with grace, intelligence and, to use an overused word, gravitas. Either he is the perfect choice for this part, or he is simply a great actor, or both. He also provides the heart of the film, a challenge in Nolan’s heady film world.
The third segment is centered on a pilot played by Tom Hardy, who is apparently making a habit of covering his face with some kind of mask for many of his roles lately. Perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated work in The Revenant and for his breakout role in Nolan’s Inception, Hardy has been facially covered up here, in Mad Max: Fury Road as the title character, and in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as the villain Bane. Hardy is an excellent actor who nearly singlehandedly carries the weight of the entire “air” segment of the film. With his strong screen presence, Hardy most definitely holds down his portion of the film.
The cinematography is, in a word, stunning. Much has been made of the film being actual film, and not video (a rarity these days), as well as how much of the film has been able to be captured on IMAX cameras, including many of the aerial shots. Much will be made of what Nolan has filmed and how he’s filmed it. Just when you thought the aerial scenes were the most spectacular you’d ever seen, Nolan brings you back to the land and his moody beach scenes, and you realize it’s strange, evocative and beautiful all at once. The film is our latest reminder of how good film can look.
Nolan has almost always been more head than heart, and I was just about sure his approach would keep the film solidly in the cool registers of the intellect when he allowed for one true moment of emotion. It didn’t last long and it was underplayed, and almost any other director would have made this moment the climax of their film, or would have built upon the moment. But at least there was a flash of warmth to help balance Nolan’s Brechtian visual and aural style. There were other touching moments, as with one gracious communication to a soldier suffering from
PTSD. But Nolan tends to stay in the realm of the intellect and, with a soundtrack that occasionally overwhelms the dialogue and can shake the viewer, in the realm of the physically experiential.
Familiar faces abound, but the level of acting is so high that one can soon forget the actor for the character. Cillian Murphy has a key role, as does Kenneth Branagh, whose legendary status as an actor/director works with his particular character. The underrated actor James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch), who can pretty much do anything, disappears into his role as one of the leaders. And Will Attenborough (grandson of director/actor Richard Attenborough) adds yet one more proof that this is one of the most accessible, relatable and warm-hearted young actors working today.
The scope of the film is huge on one hand, covering three stories with three different chronologies. And the visuals of land, sea, and air make for striking panoramic images. And yet the film is strangely truncated as well. While Branagh’s character makes some remarks that fit the huge rescue endeavor in the context of the war, Nolan provides strangely little context for this historic operation. We need to remind ourselves, as Nolan doesn’t, that this was a key moment in “the good war,” when the fight for civilization against a madman was raging, and no one knew what would happen.
If A Bridge Too Far covered the greatest European defeat of the war for the Allies, Dunkirk covered its biggest retreat. Yet we walk away with the story of Dunkirk as less a great historical moment as one experienced simply through two small groups (land and sea) and one individual (air). The personal approach is a valid one for any historical event (e.g., Mrs. Miniver), but Nolan doesn’t dig deep into the personal stories of his main characters. We get some insight into Rylance’s character’s personality and his depth of intelligence and compassion, but little into his personal story. So we are left viewing (and listening!) to these three sets of stories at something of a dispassionate distance. We are provided with some of the most amazing images film has ever offered, but Nolan’s three-part structure and his objective distance from his material tends to keep us, in spite of the occasional touching moment and dazzling shot, a bit detached emotionally.
Prediction: Like Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alejandro Iñárritu (The Revenant), and Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Nolan may well win the Best Director Oscar next year for his technical achievement while his brilliant but cool picture comes up short in the Best Picture category. Dunkirk may not warm your heart, but it will stimulate your mind and rouse your senses. Whether or not you’re a WWII aficionado, the film is a must-see.