Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Aneurin Barnard, Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D’Arcy, Michael Caine, Harry Styles,
Cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema
Dunkirk was never a subsection of World War II that was never taught during my years in high school. Even now I know very little about the eight days of British Soldiers stranded in Nazi-occupied France. Christopher Nolan, coming off of The Dark Knight series and Interstellar brings his take on a war film. Instead of following a single character navigating through the war and seeing the atrocities that war brings, Nolan uses a vignette style to show the Battle of Dunkirk from all sides, land, air, and sea.
Nolan Is Back At It
Nolan, who also pulls writing duties allows for the majority of the film to play in near silence, or rather hardly any dialog. There are long stretches of film that characters remain silent, interacting rather than conversing. Hans Zimmer’s booming score, along with terrific sound design, echoes in the theater.
Every gunshot can be felt as well as heard. Each and every sound from plane rutters cutting through the air to the sound of water rising in a sinking submarine, carries some weight nearly becoming its own character in the film. Zimmer’s score only adds to the intensity of the design while heightening the drama of each scene. It’s a score – like its movie – is unrelenting, never letting the audience go from the moment the first chord is struck.
Nolan’s depiction of war never relies on frenetic editing to build tension. Lee Smith, a longtime Nolan collaborator, utilizes Nolan’s long takes to add a sense of realism to the disasters happening all around each character.
Vignettes and Letting Shots Breathe
A scene from the first few minutes shows Aneurin Barnard’s character running from gunfire is a nearly unbroken take showing his squadmates getting gunned down one by one. Nolan and Smith allow for each set piece to play out as long as possible. Nolan never shows the faces of those shooting at the British Army adding a level of suspense and unease; it becomes difficult to guess when and where the next shot will come from.
One vignette takes place over the course of a week, another a day, and the other an hour. Smith shuffles the vignettes, synchronizing the action of all three giving the impression everything is happening concurrently even though at times the film cuts from a story unfolding at dawn and the other at night.
Dunkirk is a film that begs to be seen on the largest screen possible. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Dunkirk is glorious IMAX and seeing the sweeping movements of the camera through the air and submerged in water I can clearly tell I sorely missed out on a great thing.
Van Hoytema sticks the camera in the middle of the action, creating an almost claustrophobic quality of hunkering down while gunfire and explosions box you in. An example of this is the submarine sequence. Nolan uses the rising water as a wall encroaching on the actors, making it feel like there’s no escape.
Not Quite A Masterpiece
There’s just one thing that prevents Dunkirk from being truly great: I don’t care about any one of these people. I don’t care whether they live or die because, aside from the dogfights with Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance sailing to the shores of Dunkirk, it’s hard to distinguish who these people are. Take George for example, played by Barry Keoghan. He’s a character that means very little in the beginning of the film and remains that way as the film comes to a close.
There’s very little time spent with these characters and it makes it difficult to go through this terrible journey along with them. Barnard and Fionn Whitehead are the only exceptions to that rule, though barely.
Dunkirk is a mastery of technical achievements from editing, sound design, score, and direction but loses points for lacking the emotional depth needed to empathize with these characters. Despite its shortcomings, I can’t recommend seeing Dunkirk on the biggest screen with the highest quality speaker system enough.