DUNKIRK (UK | Netherlands | France | USA/12A/106mins)
Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan.
THE PLOT: In 1940, 338, 226 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beach in Dunkirk, having been pinned there by the advancing German Army. The evacuation did not run smoothly however, with a fierce battle being fought in the skies and the seas of Dunkirk as the soldiers prayed for a miracle.
THE VERDICT: ‘Dunkirk’ is something of a passion project for Christopher Nolan, since he first wrote the screenplay for the film 25 years ago, after crossing the English Channel to Dunkirk. The good news is that this triptych film is a taut and engrossing thriller that mostly steers clear of sentimentality and flag waving, and among its cast of thousands are some fascinating actors at the top of their game.
Leading the cast are Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, an Allied soldier trying to find a way home; Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, an English man who takes his son in their boat to cross the channel and do their bit for the war effort, and Jack Lowden as Spitfire pilot Collins. The story is told in three parts; from land, air and sea, and these actors are the main players in each part. The rest of the cast features Kenneth Brannagh, Tom Hardy – who has most of his face obscured for the second time in a Nolan film – Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, Cillian Murphy and James D’Arcy. All actors do well in their roles – yes, even Harry Styles – and their shared strength and panic form the emotional core of the film. Of course, some of the cast have more emotional weight to carry than others, and it is a delight to have Mark Rylance show why understated performances are so full of soul, and Kenneth Brannagh obviously relishes the fact that he says the most emotionally charged word of the entire film. Casting up and coming actors as the young soldiers in ‘Dunkirk’ was a great move on Nolan’s part, but it is also where the casting of Harry Styles begins to jar; even though Styles does well with what he has to do in the film, it is distracting to have such a famous face in with a cast of unknowns, and often pulls the audience out of the film.
The screenplay, written by Christopher Nolan, is one of minimal dialogue; words are used sparingly, giving the film the chance to show off the power of cinema through the beautiful visuals and haunting score. The film is divided into three storylines, each showing the evacuation from a different perspective and covering a different amount of time; a week, a day or an hour. This serves to ramp up the tension and drama of the film, but it also leads to some confusing moments as the film jumps from day to night and back again. Nolan’s screenplay excels in simply focusing on the people on the beach at Dunkirk; this is not a film of politics, good vs evil or the story of someone trying to get home to those they love, instead it is a pure and simple tale of survival, which allows the visual to tell the story, without needing to hammer home the story of the events leading to the evacuation; a story which has been told on screen many times.
As director, Christopher Nolan plays with minimal dialogue, beautiful cinematography and weaves in the gripping score from Hans Zimmer – which, admittedly, sometimes acts as director, filling in some of the gaps in Nolan’s directing – to create a taut, well paced and often breathtaking thriller, set against the backdrop of war. ‘Dunkirk’ is a race against time, a survival tale and a tale of humanity, but never tries to lay the blame at anyone’s door, preferring to just tell the story of the events of one week, and this is to the film’s credit.
In all, ‘Dunkirk’ is a taut, fast paced and engaging thriller, that is made better by Hans Zimmer’s powerful score, the sound design that has planes screaming from the sky, and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. There are times when the three different timelines work against the film, however, and although Styles is good in his role as an Allied soldier, his presence is often a jarring distraction. Still, ‘Dunkirk’ is a breath of fresh air in a summer season full or remakes, reboots and sequels.
RATING: 4/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Is Christopher Nolan the new Stanley Kubrick? The latter established a long and fruitful working relationship with Warner Bros, while war was a recurring theme in his grandly cinematic work. Nolan has worked mostly in the fantastical genre in recent years, also for Warner Bros. His first foray into the war genre is Dunkirk, a film that Kubrick would no doubt approve of. Dunkirk is pure cinema.

    Spring 1940. British troops are on the run from ‘the enemy’. The Germans have trapped 400,000 of them at the Belgian coastal town of Dunkirk. As viewed through the eyes of young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the men are stranded at the beach with no immediate way to get home. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) wants to get them off the beach, as home is not far away. A ‘mole’ or artificial pier has been constructed for this purpose. Rescue will prove difficult, given the sea swells and constant threat of bombardment from the Luftwaffe. In the air, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) engages in deadly dogfights over the sea while heading towards Dunkirk. Meanwhile, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) take a small pleasure boat out to Dunkirk to rescue whatever soldiers they can. One such soldier (Cillian Murphy) is shell-shocked and wants them to turn around for home. While there’s still a chance, there’s still hope…

    It’s entirely admirable that Dunkirk comes in at a tight 106 minutes – Nolan’s second shortest film. Given that his films have got progressively longer over the years, he seems to have reigned it back in and delivered an average-length film. Any fears that a 2.5 hour epic has been condensed into a lesser film can be quickly dispelled here. For this is a film that earns every second in telling its story and still delivers the epicness that it needs. Time is a theme here. The film is told from three perspectives (land, sea, air) over three timeframes (1 week, 1 day, 1 hour respectively). Sometimes the story rewinds slightly to replay an event from a different perspective. Nolan’s superb script knits these separate storylines together seamlessly. It’s not so much they’re separate – it’s that they come together as the crescendo builds.

    Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, ominous, ticking-clock score adds another dimension to this. There’s an increasing sense of urgency and the risk of imminent death is never far away. Even little things like Tommy keeping close to a destroyer’s hatch in case of a torpedo. It’s this attention to detail that sticks in the mind. Dunkirk was a colossal military disaster, but Nolan is not interested in judging the hows and whys, or even cutting to Winston Churchill back in London. He keeps his focus firmly and solely on the event itself, putting you right there with the men on the land, air and sea as they attempt a daring rescue against all odds. Hope is another theme running through the film. Right from the opening moments, it draws you in and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. The nearest cinematic equivalent of Dunkirk is Das Boot. You’re literally gasping for air and need to decompress after the film. It’s that intense and immersive, so you don’t need another 45 minutes.

    The technical side of the filmmaking is flawless. Nolan has long been an advocate of doing as much as he can in camera, so the film looks as real as it can be. Whether that’s sinking boats, crashing planes or the sweeping shots of a desolate landscape. For the best cinematic experience, head down to the IFI and experience the film as Nolan intended on the rare 70mm format. The high-resolution image captures every speck of sand on a soldier’s uniform and the thunderous sound relays every vibration of a Spitfire’s cockpit. You’ll even hear bullets whizzing past your ear. Dunkirk is an astonishing film. It’s pure cinema, putting you in the boots and shoes of its characters while never losing focus of its simple story of hope. Move over La La Land. The film of the year has arrived. *****

  • emerb

    Writer-director Christopher Nolan gives us a massive, terrifying, nerve-wracking war thriller with Dunkirk where he dramatizes the true story of the Allied rescue against all odds in 1940 that turned the tide of World War II. He plunges you into the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France after the catastrophic battle of Dunkirk which was helped by the now legendary flotilla of small civilian craft. It is, without a doubt, an enthralling spectacle that demands your utmost attention throughout but it isn’t the grandiose and heroic
    war epic some viewers might expect. Not especially violent and there are no big speeches, families waiting back home, flashbacks to prewar days or tragic love stories. In fact, at 100 minutes, it is the shortest of Nolan’s films to date but not a single scene in the movie is wasted nor do we have any unnecessary detail. An ingenious masterpiece, it is brilliantly conceived from multiple perspectives – the land, the sea and the air and air in time frames ranging from an hour to a week before culminating in a magnificent finale.

    The story is told from three different perspectives: land, sea, and air. Nolan superbly interweaves multiple storylines and we experience the massive evacuation effort from very different angles told in three overlapping time frames, one lasting a week, one a day, and one only an hour. For one week on the ground, the story centres on young soldier Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead). The film introduces us to him as he scrambles amidst the falling bombs and chaos, dashing along abandoned streets and diving for cover in a desperate attempt to stay alive until he reaches the beach at Dunkirk where he waits to be rescued with nearly 400,000 stranded French and British soldiers who are lined up in columns like sitting ducks. For one day on the sea, middle-aged Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is on board a small sailboat called Moonstone with his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney)and his son’s best friend George (Barry Keoghan). They are on a dangerous mission as they set sail across the channel to do what they believe is their duty and rescue the troops by bringing them home or to Navy ships awaiting off the coast. En route, they take on a traumatized lone survivor of a torpedo attack (Cillian Murphy) who protests the idea of returning to the hell he just escaped from. In the air, for
    one hour, we are in the cockpit of a Spitfire with a RAF pilot (Tom Hardy), engaging the enemy overhead and taking desperate risks with fuel as he fights the German planes and attempts to provide cover to the trapped men on the ground. Meanwhile a worried naval officer Col. Winnant (Kenneth Branagh) stands on the Mole (an extended jetty at the outer harbour where the soldiers await the small rescue boats) and surveys the doomed landscape with little hope. The Channel is the only means of escape but the waters are too shallow for larger British Navy vessels to pick up the men and Luftwaffe planes are overhead dropping bombs on the troops. To make matters worse, you can almost see England 26 miles away and some of the men are killed as they simply walk into the water, thinking they could swim across to safety. Whatever happens, there are sure to be thousands of casualties, a mission impossible.

    “Dunkirk” is an absolute triumph. Over the years, we have had numerous World War II films but there’s never been one like this. The intensely pounding, throbbing and perfectly timed score from Hans Zimmer ratchets up the tension at just the right moments and you are literally on the edge of your seat. We are treated to a number of extraordinary set pieces and I was particularly impressed with the aerial sequences which are brilliantly, meticulously and excitingly filmed. Performances are all solid from veterans such as Rylance, Murphy, Hardy and Branagh and newcomers including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles but “Dunkirk” is more about the bold, brilliant filmmaking than the acting. In fact there is little dialogue and it’s almost inaudible because of the guns, explosions and crashes. I know everyone will say it but you just have to see it on the biggest screen you can in order to benefit from the full sensory experience. With “Dunkirk”, Nolan gets everything right and hands down, it is his best movie so far. Truly amazing, superbly crafted, utterly powerful and simply unforgettable, you will struggle to name a better film this year and the best war movie ever.