Dunkirk is revered filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, which is about the real life events of May 1940. Germany’s advance into France left over 330,000 Allied troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Due to the enormous air and sea support from British and French forces alike, these troops were slowly and strategically evacuated using every military and civilian vessel available at the time.
I am a Nolan fanboy. He is one of the major influences that led me to fall in love with cinema. Given this, I hold him to high standards. Some may argue that since I am such a fanboy, my reviews of his movies would be more partial and lenient. I disagree. I argue that I am more critical of his work because I am a fanboy. Saying this, I found Dunkirk to be an admirable and solid addition to his film noir. It has problems. I didn’t love it as much as The Dark Knight, The Prestige or Memento but it is by no means a bad movie.
Lets start off with what I liked about Dunkirk. For one, I loved how Nolan played with time. Time is a rudimentary principle of film, but I find it astonishing how very few filmmakers utilize this principle as effectively and creatively as Christopher Nolan. In Memento, Nolan uses time by narrating the story backwards. In Inception, time slows down as you dive further and further into someone’s dream. In Interstellar, time either slows down or speeds up depending on the planet you are in. In Dunkirk, the film relates three concurrent narrative arcs of different lengths: the beach of Dunkirk, the air and the sea told over a period of a week, an hour and a day, respectively. These three narrative arcs slowly converge over the film’s 105 minute runtime. It was like watching a ticking time bomb slowly go off.
Hans Zimmer’s score was also a devastating addition to the terror of war that Dunkirk attempts to portray. Zimmer utilizes the illusory technique called the Shepard Tone whereby you feel a continuing rising in pitch though the music doesn’t escalate that high. The result is a droning beat that ratchets ever up in intensity. The score gradually raised my heartbeat and made me a silent observer who was watching the terrors of war unfold on the beaches of Dunkirk. I have to also commend the feats of aerial and underwater cinematography that this film manages to achieve. I can’t quite put into words how exceptional this film was shot especially in these two aspects; It is just something you will have to witness for yourself.
Let’s briefly glaze over the performances. Christopher Nolan placed a lot of faith in his younger cast to take center stage and provide the dramatic intensity that this film needs, and it worked. Harry Styles, for a debut performance, does an outstanding job. Fionn Whitehead, a British soldier stranded on Dunkirk, delivers a muted but facially expressive performance. Veteran actors like Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh were also present, but in very small doses (not quite enough screen time to give an accurate depiction of). Also apparently Michael Caine gives a brief voice over?
However as mentioned earlier, I do have a few problems with Dunkirk. My first problem is its use of three concurrent narrative arcs. As a viewer, you have to be very focused when watching because the film very regularly cuts from one of these arcs to another. It is your responsibility to figure out when one arc ends and the next one starts. As a result, I found it mentally challenging to keep track of all the different perspectives and piece together a cohesive storyline. My second problem is that there is no central character. Because Dunkirk has an abnormally shorter runtime than some of the other Nolan movies and is told through three vaguely connected storylines, there is no one central character that you are constantly in touch with. I guess the purpose of this could be that Nolan was trying to push more attention towards the actual evacuation of Dunkirk and the terrors of war that there was no time to introduce and flesh out a main character.
But overall, Dunkirk is generally accepted to be a landmark film by the majority of audiences and I get why. Although I was a bit letdown by the movie, I will still commend it for what it does manage to achieve: spectacular cinematography, unique storytelling and an exhilarating soundtrack.