As with most media featuring World War II as the setting, I had to take a look at this film. There are also two Winston Churchill biopics this year, and I may get to them later this year. But whatever they may be, I’m willing to bet that this film by Christopher Nolan can still blow them out of the water as it’s perhaps one of the best treatments of a WW2 event I’ve seen in cinema thus far.
Dunkirk had been 25 years in the making, starting from when Nolan was struck with the inspiration to write and make a film about one of the most incredible historical moments of the 20th century. I do doubt how many people would think of this movie as great (I saw a guy sleeping in the theater after the movie was over), but I do think it’s one that the likes of Nick Hodges of History Buffs will gush about in a review when the BluRay comes out.
NOTE: As this is intended as a full review, there may be spoilers. You’ve been warned.
While most people should be able to find this movie compelling even without historical context, it’s still best to be aware of the background and actual events of the real Dunkirk evacuation. I gave a brief rundown at the start of the review video above.
The film features three stories that line up as the film progresses and split up according to setting—the mole, the sea, and the air. The difference in locations makes each story easy enough to follow. The times indicated for each at the start of the film seem to be the duration each story takes, meaning that each part ran at a different speed, with the mole going the quickest and the air the slowest.
They then line up as the film reaches its conclusion and the characters’ fates are laid out as the Dunkirk evacuation concludes. Each story had different characters that experience the early part of World War II in their own way, with those stranded in Dunkirk experiencing terror and desperation, the civilians in the little boats hoping to help, and the fighter pilots focusing on accomplishing their mission of keeping the skies clear in Dunkirk.
I feel that it’s one of those films wherein almost anyone could’ve been in it, and it would’ve been fine. Not to say the actors didn’t do a good job since they all did. In particular, the performances of Kenneth Branagh, Cillian, Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Mark Rylance are the ones I can recall off the top of my head as the best. And of course, Tom Hardy (#AirBane) was the biggest badass in the whole film.
Fionn Whitehead was indeed exceptional as the protagonist here. He carried the film with a believable character who could only act accordingly while being put through situations that have broken other men, one such as Cillian Murphy’s character. Him reading Winston Churchill’s speech with furrowed brow in the train, having gotten away from the sandy hell that was Dunkirk, summed the whole situation up poignantly.
Perhaps it was a good thing that I wrote this so late because I’ve since read comments from people who really couldn’t get the story due to the non-linear and somewhat disconnected narrative used in this film. Having known how Nolan does things since the 2000s, I knew what I was in for. However, there are a lot of people out there who genuinely felt that it was unnecessary to do it in such a way. I would like to explain a bit of why it had to be done that way and that it’s okay to feel confused because it indeed was, at least at first.
The non-linear narrative was done for ample character development. If the narrative was instead chronologically linear, the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the new characters that would pop up with each new part. Nolan would then have had to stretch the film to accommodate them. If this film were any longer than it is, it would’ve dragged and ultimately fall flat. With the way it was written and directed, it would’ve been really easy to screw up. But with this being a Christopher Nolan project, there was care with every shot.
The cinematography was all about showing the scale of the Dunkirk problem, with lots of wide-angle shots of the beaches and the sea to show the vast space they had to traverse to get safe. In the end, nothing wasted on this film—every shot had purpose, every word spoken drove the story. There were also quite a few scenes that kept shots limited in scope, like the inside of ships. It put the audience in the viewpoint of the soldiers, who didn’t know whatever was going on outside, whether it’s in the destroyer or that beached boat.
Then there was the soundtrack that enhanced the tension with its Shepard’s tone. I’m not sure of the exact science, but it certainly had me on edge for most of the film. Add to that the excessive loudness that many complained about (for mostly good reason). Nolan stated it was deliberate, and he should be credited for that gumption. From what I can recall, the loudest noises were from the Stukas, since they had Jericho horns.
The loudness was important to add contrast to the quiet moments and to further stress the hellishness of war. It’s said that what really establishes PTSD is that loudness that can be deafening in the middle of a firefight, especially bombings and artillery strikes.
- Three stories that line up at the end
- Soundtrack helps maintain tension
- Ample character development
- Great performances by the cast
- Dramatic license did not take away from retelling of history
- Tom Hardy as AirBane
- Narrative can be confusing at first
- Gets pretty damn loud
It's certainly one of the best movies I've watched in recent memory. The only reason why it doesn't get a 10 from me is because I did find the non-linear narrative rather confusing at first, although I caught on later on. It's one of those films that seems like it's meant to make some people feel bad for being too dumb to get it. I'm wary of such films, even if they're good.
Also, I get a feeling that it's one of those films that I wouldn't want to watch again. I've given a 10 this year, namely for Logan, simply because it's the type of film I really like in both theme and narrative. I've watched it again, and it was still great. But with this film, now knowing how it goes, it wouldn't be as tense.
A good case for rewatching it is to see if you could get the flow of its narrative better and see more of the things that were put in there. Perhaps "punishing" a film for being "too smart" is rather unfair, but I still gave it a 9 since it's that good.