Nolan has managed to make a masterpiece in a genre crowded with masterpieces, one that will likely be held up as one of the best ever about World War II.


4.5 / 5

Christopher Nolan has taken us into the mind of an amnesiac, through the dark streets of Gotham City, rocketing into outer space and even into the multi-faceted recesses of the dream world. However, in many ways, Nolan has made his best film in Dunkirk, one rooted entirely in reality using the second World War as a milieu for a fast-paced suspense ride. No war has fascinated filmmakers as much as World War II, a time and place explored and picked over by directors ever since it came to an end in 1945. Shot in 70mm with a cast of hundreds, Dunkirk tells the story about the evacuation of scores of British soldiers from France in 1940, near the beginning of the war, after being overwhelmed by German forces. Focusing on multiple stories at the same time, on the land, sea and air, Dunkirk eschews character development and dialogue for non-stop action, a lean film comprised of one action set piece after another. Light on gore, but heavy on tension, Dunkirk allows Nolan to cast off most of the expositional problems that plague many of his films, allowing the audience to enjoy it as an action movie at first blush, but providing enough depth and mystery that there is likely much to discover upon multiple viewings.

The film’s narrative structure takes time to unfold as its three stories seem to occur simultaneously. The first story concerns two young soldiers (played by Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard) as they try to escape the beaches of Dunkirk, fighting through hordes of other soldiers desperate to flee before a German Stuka bomber appears and drops its load on them. The only problem: the English Channel separates them from England. In the second story, a father and son (Mark Rylance and Tom Glynn-Carney) travel from England to Dunkirk in their private boat to rescue the stranded soldiers. Along the way, they pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who survived a German torpedo, and whose PTSD may jeopardize their mission. In the third and final story, we follow a pair of RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they chase down those Stuka bombers intent on killing as many British soldiers as possible.

All three stories contain breathtaking sequences that hold on with a vise-like grip and do notrelent until the film’s final moments. Nolan has filmed many suspenseful sequences before, but in Dunkirk he has moved ahead technically, creating the most beautiful and convincing moments of his career. Instead of a Saving Private Ryan gore-fest, Nolan goes for more intimate moments where we share the confines of a Spitfire cockpit, or we’re locked in a flooding hold of a doomed destroyer or the crumbling jetty with nowhere else to go but ocean, even if Britain is only 30 miles away. Gone are the overcooked ideas that sunk Inception or the gooey love story in the middle of Interstellar. Dunkirk is all show and no tell.

While Nolan’s ensemble cast (also featuring Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh) do well with minimally written roles, Dunkirk belongs to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who shot the movie in 70mm. Though my screening was digital, I can only imagine how amazing the film looks in its intended format. With its aptly muted color palette Dunkirk looks fantastic. A good deal of the movie takes place on or over the open sea, the blueness of the water belying a risk of drowning. In fact, in more than one claustrophobic sequence, many of Nolan’s protagonists escape from German bombs and bullets only to face down the sea.

With Hans Zimmer’s ominous score propelling the action, Dunkirk is a step ahead from his near-masterpiece Interstellar in its refusal to sermonize or fall into pedantic claptrap. Nolan’s vision of Dunkirk is a cold one, where survival comes from sheer luck as much as ingenuity. God has nothing to do with it. In many ways, Dunkirk could have played better as a silent film filled with grunts, screams and sighs rather than some of the rote dialogue Nolan gives his characters. And much like in Terrence Malick’s otherwise fantastic Thin Red Line, the wattage of the more famous actors distracts somewhat from the full experience. All except Hardy, who spends most of the film with his face covered (a trend for the actor), emoting with his expressive eyes. But that’s a minor quibble. Nolan has managed to make a masterpiece in a genre crowded with masterpieces, one that will likely be held up as one of the best ever about World War II.

Leave a Comment