Genre: Action, Drama, History, War
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard
Runtime: 1h 46min
Dunkirk does not work. It’s sad to admit, given how important the story is, and how deeply it’s rooted in the English psyche. Yet, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious attempt to tell the human story behind a pivotal chapter in history falls apart quickly, leaving a debris field of half-scorched war movie clichés and some leaden, empty moments delivered by a talented and respectable cast.
How could so much talent, noble intention and pure cinematic craft go so wrong? Probably because Nolan was trying to do too much.
Eager to capture the “Dunkirk Spirit” that defines the stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on British identity, Nolan tries to show us the great evacuation of the French beaches from three different perspectives: land, sea and air.
It’s a solid idea on paper, allowing Nolan to offer three different perspectives on the action: The retreating Allied soldiers struggling to stay alive as they fight against German artillery and air strikes, the Royal Air Force’s brave dogfights against the looming Luftwaffe, and the ordinary civilians who answered the call for help and sailed a flotilla of ‘small ships’ into a war zone, rescuing hundreds of thousands soul by soul.
It’s this last element — the everyday Britons who joined the fight — that makes Dunkirk the humanitarian “miracle” it’s become. It’s where any director can score the biggest points with his or her audience by making them participants in an epic war story, a place normally reserved for the leading man with the strong jaw and a matter-of-fact American drawl.
Nolan doesn’t neglect this beating heart of the whole drama. He creates a character symbolic of the brave, common spirit in Mr Dawson. He wears tweed trousers, he utters lines such as “those are Rolls-Royce Merlin engines… Spitfire… the best plane ever made,” and he’s played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). Rylance had the power to make us sympathize with an enemy spy, and he also has the power to convey all the crazy nobility it takes to power up a wooden pleasure yacht and steam toward apocalyptic plumes of black smoke.
That’s the poke into the solar plexus that Dunkirk could have — probably should have — perfected: the beautiful selflessness of it all. It’s what makes us cry with neither joy, nor sadness, but a heart swollen with human potential.
Nolan has a finger on this pulse, but he gets distracted by his other narratives, all taking place in different time frames — creating an almost incomprehensible edit that, by design, fragments any sense of emotional integrity inherent in each arc.
There were moments in this film where I had absolutely no sense of time, place or even the enemy. One moment, we’re flying along on a sortie with Spitfires lead by Tom Hardy — again, wearing a mask that covers half his face — and the next, we’re watching Kenneth Branagh condense the events of an entire battle into a single sentence, with appropriate gravitas, as well as a perfectly executed ‘brave smile.’
The ordinary soldiers — played by heartthrob Harry Styles, newcomer Fionn Whitehead and a host of handsome others — feel like half-sketched characters on Titanic. In that regard, they may as well be human set decoration, because Nolan takes time blowing stuff up and sinking real ships. All of it looks authentic, but at this stage, that’s almost a disappointment: everything looks so small.
Through all the real smoke and practical effects, the ‘acting’ became palpable. Nolan’s self-penned script is the real culprit because in its bid for detail, it lacks context. And in its bid for scope, it loses focus. Each performance unfolds in isolation, as though he’s made three different movies and tried to sew them all into one big war epic by throwing characters together through awkwardly plotted encounters.
In his defence, this is part and parcel of the genre — along with cheap intercuts for suspense and an oppressive soundtrack to make the audience feel besieged on a subconscious level.
Dunkirk knows all the war movies that came before it, from ‘The Longest Day’ to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’.
Nolan’s film conjures some of its predecessors best moments, offering realistic battle footage, dramatic aerials and the purely surreal sensation of war itself — with all its panic, chaos and life-affirming adrenaline.
Yet, for all the heroic effort, there is no heroic result.
Nolan can’t be faulted for trying in this very ‘noble’ attempt, but in the very act of trying to turn Dunkirk into widescreen blockbuster, he neglects the central message: salvation can only be delivered on a human scale.