Christopher Nolan has done it again. Whether making a movie about Batman, magicians, spinning tops, space adventures, loss of memory or sleep-deprived detectives, the man knows how to make a film. Nolan has yet to make a bad film and this is another installment in his classic film catalogue. Another thing about Christopher Nolan films is that you always walk into one with typical expectations: it will be very long (usually around 2 ½ hours), involve several different plot strings that we constantly cut between and it will probably be loaded with special effects. This is another reason that this film is filled with unexpected moments.
Dunkirk tells the true story of a battle during World War II in which the British and French armies were essentially stuck in the French city of Dunkirk and being evacuated amidst the constant attacks by German forces by air, sea and land. The film focuses on those three means of transport with three pilots attempting to rid the sky of German planes, the ones at sea attempting to rescue the aforementioned soldiers and the ones on land dealing with the constant attacks and the fact that they were only able to slowly escape in small groups at a slow rate which only made them that much more vulnerable.
As I noted the Nolan hallmarks typical of his films, it must be pointed out immediately that this movie doesn’t follow all of those things. First of all, the film is a scant 105 minutes and it feels like it just soars by in less than that. This isn’t a knock on the film either; Nolan accomplishes a ton in the allotted time. Secondly, the film does indeed cut between different plot lines (three in this case) allowing for us to see the progression each time and makes for some excellent suspense as a lot of scenes constantly leave us hanging. He even goes back in time a bit when cutting to another set of characters without making it obvious but also never making it confusing. The last hallmark I mentioned was the special effects. In this film, it feels like Nolan is using almost no CGI. The explosions are visceral and have a real feeling to them, the amount of extras is staggering but it never feels like he’s using technology to add a bunch of fake people to crowds. I had heard from a few reviews that saw that as a flaw but I thought it was refreshing.
There are several highlight performances in the movie. Harry Styles (yes, the One Direction kid) makes a pretty impressive acting debut in the film and notably, he was cast by Nolan who admitted that he knew nothing about the band and simply thought he was the best actor for the part. Although Styles doesn’t get a meaty role like some of the other performers, he has one standout scene later on as a number of soldiers are stuck in an abandoned boat with German forces surrounding them. Tom Hardy plays one of the pilots and is also quite good even though his face is covered for most of his performance. Even then, we’ve seen him do quite well under the same circumstances before (The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road) and here he does it again – his facial expressions and solemn demeanour win everyone over. Cillian Murphy is quite good as a rather shellshocked young man who is taken up by a rescue boat. His character trajectory is easily one of the most interesting of the film. Mark Rylance does an excellent job captaining one of the small rescue boats. I loved his inner conflict when Murphy accidentally does something awful to another character and Rylance must decide on pressing forward or going back. Rylance is such a terrific actor who continues to shine with any material. There are a few other strong appearances from Kenneth Branagh as an authority figure and Fionn Whitehead in the lead (?) role showing some real emotion and range.
Here is one of the most interesting thing about Nolan’s new film. Rather than just being an excellent filmmaker who could direct a war movie in his sleep and rest on his laurels, Nolan strips away everything you would expect from a movie like this and somehow makes it work. Fully-fleshed out characters that you get a whole lot of background and context from with flashbacks or long monlogues? Nope. A lead character to cling to throughout the whole thing as the one constant that the audience can relate to? Debateable. A clear linear story from Point A to Point B? Nada. This is such an ensemble film with different story arcs that it can be argued that neither are more important than the other and in fact it exists moreso as a sprawling examination of this particular human struggle that took place on the beaches so many years ago. There are also no scenes involving the German opposition; we see their planes and their destruction but we never see their faces nor do we ever get a look at Winston Churchill despite a few references to him. We don’t get the rah-rah of American Sniper or the gut-wrenching death scenes of Saving Private Ryan but rather, it’s almost like Mr. Nolan invents new cliches for filmmakers to copy from him in years to come.
There are still some harrowing, intense sequences to be sure. Highlights include the grand finale of course where all the story arcs converge together in a way that is both entertaining and completely logical, a scene involving a group of young soldiers finding an abandoned boat, another involving an attempted escape from a capsized oil tanker and a very powerful scene involving Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and two very talented teenage performers on a small rescue boat. The thing is that the film doesn’t even live or die based on these scenes alone but because they are so well-shot and edited, it makes the movie all the better for it. Accompanying the powerful nature of these scenes was the soundtrack. In the opening scene of the film when two boys are quickly carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher so that they can make it onto a rescue boat on time, the background music is mainly strings (violins in particular I believe) and it is so minimalist that it just works better than any oppressive emotional music could in the same scene.
I know I have been rating a lot of films with utmost praise lately and this will be another one. I don’t know how to give it anything but a perfect rating because it is absolutely flawless from beginning to end. A triumph for Christopher Nolan to continue his already wondrous filmmaking career.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)