CAPSULE: In an unusual stylistic view, Christopher Nolan writes and directs his re-creation of one of the most heroic retreats in history. 400,000 British soldiers had been fighting in Europe and now were surrounded by Germans, stranded on the beaches of near the French town of Dunkirk where they were vulnerable to attack from the land, sea, and air. At the same time as he is telling the story, Nolan does some strange experiments with cinema time that the inattentive viewer (like me perhaps) might easily miss. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Dunkirk is an odd choice for a patriotic account of the British in WWII. Usually films about World War II engagements are about major victories like MIDWAY or occasionally defeats like TORA! TORA! TORA!. DUNKIRK is a film about a retreat. Was it glorious? Well, it was after the Brits had disastrously bitten off more than they could chew in Europe and could not get the support they needed to protect them as they backed off. They were lined up on the beach at Dunkirk where they could be picked off like clay pigeons in a shooting gallery. They were staring across the English Channel from Dunkirk to Britain, nearly defenseless. They waited skittishly to be evacuated, but no rescue appeared to be forthcoming. The eventual rescue was not the stuff of great victory and glory. In fact why it was not a horrendous defeat is a question still hotly debated today. What did happen was that the British military mobilized ships to pick up the waiting soldiers and effect a rescue. But what made the operation particularly memorable is the large number of civilian volunteers who took private boats and crossed the channel themselves at risk to their lives as they rescued the waiting British troops. The small boats were in deadly danger from the Luftwaffe patrolling the skies above. The battle began May 26, 1940, and finally ended on June 4, with about 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops being evacuated from Dunkirk. Readers may remember the Dunkirk beach scenes recreated for the film ATONMENT (2007).
Was the rescue glorious? To a great extent it was certainly heroic. The film documents an expedient retreat. There also was the fact that everybody knew that the Brits needed a great victory at that point. But great victories were in short supply just then. The Dunkirk evacuation gave the public not just an action to be proud of, it was one in which ordinary civilians valiantly banded together to have a part in providing a victory.
DUNKIRK is an unusual war film in that it was shot with very subjective sensory points of view with liberal use of hand-held cameras and subliminal sound. This gives the film the viewer a feel of what it was like. The film has a sort of you-are-there immediacy. The film actually takes a trick or two from "found footage" films. Long stretches we see have no word spoken. Director/writer Christopher Nolan lets a scene explain itself without words. What dialog there is is spoken in thick accent. That adds to the realism, but makes parts of the film hard to follow. The style is much like that used in DAS BOOT (1982).
One film cannot follow more than a small fraction of the stories of the Dunkirk action. Instead we follow three plot threads: one on the water, one on the land, and one in the air. Nolan carefully orchestrates the sound design in each of these environments. It has some texture and a tempo that is a bit overwhelming. On the other hand Hans Zimmer's film score probably would not stand on its own. It is non-melodic. It seems there is a constant minimalist musical texture for the film like it was produced in a machine. When something is exciting or suspenseful Zimmer simply picks up the tempo, playing the same sound only faster. The score serves as a pulse for the film, marking off time.
Since his first film MEMENTO (1982), Nolan usually plays with time in his films. He experiments while going from one of the three threads to another. One thread covers a single day, one covers more than a week, one is somewhere in between, though the stories are told in parallel going from one thread to another.
The film has a very moving performance by Mark Rylance (of BRIDGE OF SPIES and WOLF HALL). He shows the courage and sacrifice of a civilian volunteer who is taking his small boat into the conflagration that most people would leave to the military. Nolan acting veterans Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy are on hand. Murphy shows the deep psychological price soldiers are called on to pay. Kenneth Branagh has not much to do but is the personification of the British anxiety, worrying for its 400,000 risked soldiers.
Most characters remain nameless, so the viewer is cautioned to pay close attention to faces. The film is entirely humorless and drenched in subdued colors. This (appropriately enough) makes the whole film a downbeat experience. But Nolan uses unusual and new techniques to make the viewer feel as if she/he is actually experiencing the action--for better or worse. This is one of the great WWII films. I rate DUNKIRK a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5013056/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dunkirk_2017
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2017 Mark R. Leeper