This is Christopher Nolan’s 14th film, and it is based on the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War 2.
What’s it about?
During World War Two, allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire, and France are surrounded by the Germans and desperately need to evacuate. The event was described as a military disaster with soldiers frantically trying to get home. One of the reasons this movie has gathered interest is because it is not a world war story about victory. The movie is played in three nonlinear parts – The Mole (the land), The Sea and The Air. From a technical perspective, this is probably one of Nolan’s finest works.
I had the pleasure of seeing this in IMAX. You probably know from the marketing of this film that it was shot using a combination of a 65mm IMAX, and a 65mm large format film stock, and that it was the first feature-length film to use IMAX cameras in a handheld capacity after advice from Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard. It is not common for a modern film to sell itself on how it was shot, but when I saw Dunkirk I understood why. The entire movie relies on grandeur shots and various perspectives and it was a distraction because it is genuinely fascinating to watch. From long sweep shots on the beaches to long scope shots of the soldiers lining up to escape, it is obvious that Nolan indulged his obsession of using certain cameras in his most IMAX-shot film to date.
So this is a typical Nolan movie then?
There is the usual nonlinear theme which Nolan has utilised in many of his movies, which are either loved or hated. Personally, I did not feel that the different timelines were an issue in order to work out the story. There is a temptation to get caught up on the land, sea and air nonlinear strands interwoven into one single narrative, but if you look at it simply as the land is a 1 week story, the sea is a 1 day story and the air is a 1 hour story, that is all you should focus on. The story is not created for audiences to figure out. At face value, the important aspects are the events themselves.
Another technical element to consider is the sound and music. From a sound perspective, it is very, very loud, especially with gun shots, explosions and simple things like sand thudding back to the surface. This is complemented with the music, which was scored by his usual partner in crime Hans Zimmer. Usually, in Nolan movies, the music is way louder than other components, but I assume that because war is meant to be loud they have made the music the underlying backbone to the entire movie. Although slightly different to his other Nolan projects, it is another good piece of work by Zimmer. The entire movie also has a rather unusual ticking clock, which is actually Nolan’s own pocket watch, which is meant to represent the build-up, as the interwoven storylines come to the surface in one big snowball effect.
Dunkirk is very Nolan from a technical perspective, and it works in favour of the film. I think if you appreciate how he makes films then there is little to grumble from that angle.
But is it good?
Ah, the question I have been dreading to answer because historically I am an admirer of Nolan’s work. Yes, it is good. Dunkirk does not hide away from the fact that this is more about the events themselves than the characters. With each nonlinear event there is a main character, however, the movie only gives you a sliver of what these characters are about. The movie elevates the fact that the most important factor is getting home and making sure that all the events come together at once. The film does not hide away from its self-indulgent behavior, which is ensuring every little grain of detail these soldiers faced are documented into a feature-length movie. The movie sets an expectation in the first 20 minutes, when you are introduced to a soldier escaping from an onslaught from the Germans, and he ends up on the beach. There is little dialogue, however, you soon find yourself in awe of the incoming attack from German planes. The importance was set on the incoming attack and how everyone reacted, and not “what is the background of this character?”. I guess a few will raise this as an issue, that there was no character development. The difference with Dunkirk is that apart from the characters at sea, the rest of the people in this movie have succumbed to a vacuum; home is so near yet so far, and with every signal of hope there is an incoming attack, so their background and where they are from seems a little irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This vacuum is well represented as the movie completely isolates itself to the events of the evacuation only. When the soldiers are facing danger it is a tense few minutes each time it happens. There are few films out there that can transfer the idea of the panic of an incoming enemy, and Dunkirk serves the idea to you plenty of times throughout.
So it is more a spectacle than a story?
In many ways yes. I never thought I would ever watch a Nolan movie that shows little interest in its characters. Yes, the performances are good. Tom Hardy pulls off a performance in such a limited role, and I question how he manages to have such an effect when he is literally sat in a cockpit for most of a film, and then you have a superb performance from Harry Styles, which was the big surprise for me as it is so random how he has ended up in what is one of the biggest movies of the year. Regardless of good performances from the highly talented ensembled cast, it was the events of Dunkirk that form the body of the movie. It is the heartbeat to the entire story, which did not 100% resonate with me, but I just had to accept that the movie was literally documenting how Dunkirk may have panned out that week.
Wait…. so you didn’t like it?
No, I did like it and I expected it to be more of an event than a story. The trailers did not lie. Each one was respectful to the movie itself. The reason for my slight hesitation is that I walked away from Dunkirk appreciating it way more from a filmmaking perspective, so I have reviewed it based on what the film wanted to do, which is to showcase different groups of men in different nonlinear storylines tackling the military disaster at Dunkirk, and if I am honest it did that way better than I expected.
Anything else to add?
Yes, Cillian Murphy is brilliant in this, and I will not go into too much detail but he is probably the stand-out performer.
There is no denying the fact that Dunkirk is a fine Nolan movie that I will probably watch several times, and will probably want to review again and change my score in the future. This always happens to me with his films because it does, at times, take me a few viewings to truly appreciate what the movie does. Just because it was technically brilliant by the director does not make it my favorite movie in his filmography. I genuinely believe I will always look back at this film as something that showcases his talents, but did not resonate with me like The Dark Knight or Interstellar.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.