Movie Review: ‘Dunkirk’


Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Review: 400,000 Allied troops have been driven to Dunkirk Beach during WW2, where they wait for an evacuation while surrounded by enemy troops, planes and u-boats.

Review: I feel somewhat traumatised.

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On paper it seems like an odd match. Christopher Nolan doesn’t play well with genres, he prefers to experiment with narrative structure and explore philosophy and psychology in unexpected places like superhero and heist movies. A genre that’s as clearly defined as a war movies doesn’t feel like something he’d work with. As it turns out Nolan is throwing out the rule book of not only the genre but film-making as a whole.

One of the most striking and noticeable aspects of this movie is the extremely sparse dialogue. We go through scene after scene where the main characters don’t deliver a single line, rather the visuals and Hans Zimmer’s incredible score tell the story. It adds an element of realism to this depiction of the true story as there’s very little they need to say to each other. Given the circumstances they’re in and how bleak the outcome seems to be it would be odd for them to do the usual war movie routine of sitting around explaining their backstory and wistfully discussing what is waiting for them at home to create the illusion of a connection between them and the audience. In this movie such a commonly held convention would be trite.

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On reflection we learn nothing about any of the characters we’re spending almost two hours with, with the slight exception of George (Keoghan). We’re not invited into their lives, we’re simply following them into this nightmare situation. Our time with them is surprisingly intimate, there’s very few wide shots or camera sweeps. Instead Nolan keeps tight on the actors faces and confined to enclosed environments. The movie wants us to experience things for ourselves, as such most impacts and attacks only enter our awareness when the characters experience them. We get lost in the noise and our visuals get obscured until we’ve lost our bearings.

To say that things are intense is an understatement. Zimmer deserves immense credit for driving the story. His score, along with the sound design, had us pinned to our seats. Dunkirk is not a long film by Nolan standards, clocking in at less than two hours, but it moves by very quickly. 

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Also unorthodox is the narrative structure, which I admit took me a while to work out. The film shifts between the events on Dunkirk Beach, a boat crossing the channel to aid in the evacuation and midair dogfights above the situation. Although we move between the three threads throughout the film and they all converge in the one moment, but they’re not synchronised with each other as we see them. The events on the beach take place over a week, the boat over a day and the planes an hour.

It’s testament to Nolan’s ability that he makes this work so effectively. There’s no confusion about the placement of characters or their place on the timeline even when we get glimpses of them in the background of scenes we haven’t seen them arrive at. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is paired with Nolan again after Interstellar and after his work on Spectre (wherein the cinematography was the only saving grace) and again proves that he’s one of the best in the business.

My only criticism, and it’s going to be a contentious one, is that the movie includes a note of patriotism and celebration of bravery of the soldiers in the closing scene. It’s not an overwhelming slow-fade-on-an-American-flag-Saving-Private-Ryan finale, but it’s there and after the heavy lean into war being an overwhelming nightmare of death and desperation it feels out of place. I’m not one for any celebration of war so perhaps this stood out for me, but it was a downturn.

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Overall this film is a masterclass of the form. It’s meticulously crafted and comes at the end of 25 years of planning and experience – similar to Baby Driver, another phenomenal film for 2017. Make sure you see this on the biggest, high quality system you can because it’s an experience.

Rating: NINE out of TEN

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