Dunkirk Review: A Technical Masterpiece And That's About It

Dunkirk  | Warner Bros
Photo: Dunkirk | Warner Bros




Christopher Nolan



Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles



Drama, Historical, Action & Adventure



Avg user Rating


One of the most common complaints about Christopher Nolan is the exposition in his films, especially Interstellar. His long screenplays have often felt the need to explain every minutia, so that the audience picks up on details in his nonlinear complex plots. In Dunkirk, the screenplay is half the number of pages Nolan normally writes, reducing the film's runtime to 107 minutes. Here, Nolan falls back on his technical abilities as a film maker, creating a unique vision for a war-drama which isn't about war, but survival.

Dunkirk is a true-life story about the evacuation of more than 300,000 British soldiers from the shallow beaches of northern France. The task was daunting - not just for the sheer size of the military personnel that were needed to be rescued, but also for the fact that the German troops were closing in from all sides. Dunkirk, France lies not more than 26 miles away from the nearest British shoreline. A defeat at Dunkirk would have meant the German capture of almost all the Britain's standing army, leaving the home defenseless. The shallow beach made navigating ships to the port a harrowing task. Only one ship could dock at the breakwater at a time - preparing to ferry soldiers home while evading German bombardment.

Christopher Nolan captures this sense of hopelessness perfectly well. The evacuation is a race against time, as the ticking clock in the background score constantly reminds us. The environment the soldiers operate in adds to the threat as well. The open beaches, seas and the sky leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed; the narrow breakwater, the jam-packed ship decks and the cockpit of the fighter planes make you anxious and claustrophobic. Out there in the open spaces there's nowhere to hide, and in the closed spaces there's nowhere to escape. The circumstances created by the environment are the key to the suspense because you don't really see the Germans in the movie. They can only be heard from the crackle of the guns, the thuds of the aircraft machine guns, and the scary hum resonating from the planes descending down from the skies - as they pick-off stranded ships and soldiers.

Dunkirk has a talented line-up, but, the standouts are surely Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy. Mark Rylance is Mr. Dawson, a sailor commissioned by the Navy to lead his small boat in a civilian rescue of the stranded soldiers. His stoic presence as he sails into the fog of war is endearing and Nolan's classic withholding of key character information helps create an intrigue as to why Mr.Dawson knows what he knows and why he is doing what he is doing. Tom Hardy is just magnificent. His face is covered by a mask the most times and the only look of him we get is through the glaring pilot glasses that reveal his eyes. So, he acts with his eyes and he does an incredible job portraying a determined fighter pilot chasing German propellers. The only character that's wasted is probably Kenneth Branagh. He doesn't have much to do as Commander Bolton, other than stare long hard into the distance - sometimes with binoculars - waiting for impending doom.

Nolan's use of 70mm film certainly gives this movie a sense of hyper-reality. The large screen format is currently the closest we will come to a movie VR experience. In the world of digital formats, the use of film creates wonderful contrasts - rendering hypnotically beautiful colours. This is where we must praise Hoyte van Hoytema' s cinematography. Its best use comes during the movie's most action-packed scenes - the Dog Fights. Hoyte captures the feeling of a chase, where the table between the pursued vs the pursuer can change any minute. The sense of scale provided on both land and the air is often jaw-dropping.

But, the movie has its problems. Dunkirk is a massive well-directed spectacle and that's sadly all it remains. The lack of effort in developing solid characters was a risk Nolan took and it doesn't pay off. The movie never hits the mark emotionally and at times it feels like you are watching a big budget IMAX documentary. Hans Zimmer probably has done some of his best work for the movie. He does a fabulous job building tension but it all just fizzles out, because, in the end, there isn't much offered to us so that we can care about the characters. In peril, the leads feel no different than the thousands of extras in the movie.

There are a few good moments that only offer a reminder of a missed opportunity. A story of heroism towards the end of the movie will genuinely leave a lump in your throat. It's because the script spends a small amount of time giving the character an aspiration. That's all it took. In a runtime that was 107 minutes long, 20 more minutes for character exploration would have only made this movie complete.

Dunkirk is still a great movie. It's admirable that Nolan took the risk and an unconventional approach to make a war movie. The movie is an on-screen delight and it explores an often untold British perspective of WWII. But, it fails at the very junction that made other war movies great - telling a human story.

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