Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.
Nolan has already established himself as one of the greatest directors of our time with his impressive body of work, including Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, Memento, The Prestige, and more. Tackling a war film seems like both a logical next step, but also a chance to perhaps expose a weakness in his filmmaking. After all, war films are generally grand in scope, and involve some element of a real life story mixing tragedy and triumph. I’m happy to report Nolan was more than up to the challenge.
Dunkirk is a World War II film told in a completely Nolanesque-style. The Filmsmiths’ Nick Potter will write more about how this particular film fits into Nolan’s filmic universe in a later review. So, for now, let’s stick to the basics. The movie concentrates on a handful of characters involved in the historic battle, allowing us to form bonds with them in the midst of a larger than life event. After all, more than 400,000 soldiers were trapped in Dunkirk, under heavy fire from German forces, with no way off the beach. As in most war films, the faces of the soldiers in their matching uniforms and similar haircuts blend together, turning the men into a mass of humanity. Nolan grounds the film with three groups of men in different locations.
First, we meet two young soldiers who cross paths and wordlessly introduce us to the situation at Dunkirk. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh plays a colonel who is directing the evacuation process on the mole. The fates of the two young men eventually intersect with Branagh, and they serve as the anchors for the scenes on the beach, representing the action on the land.
We also meet British fighter pilots who are making their way toward Dunkirk, as they attempt to shoot down German fighters and protect British ships on their way to Dunkirk. Played by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, these characters introduce us to the battle in the air.
Finally, we meet a fishing boat captain (played by Mark Rylance), his son, and a young friend. Great Britain has sounded the call for civilian boats to come to the aide of the stranded soldiers, and while many heed the call, Nolan focuses our attention on one of the many vessels making their way across the English Channel. These characters represent the efforts at sea.
The cinematography is breath-taking throughout the film. There are shots that are sure to become cinematic classics. The acting is strong, allowing Nolan to switch from cramped, claustrophobic spaces to wide shots of seemingly never-ending sea or beach. In fact, the juxtapositions between the tight spaces and the grand vistas are what make the cinematography and shot selection so strong.
What makes Dunkirk unique and so effective, however, is the way Nolan plays with time. If you’re familiar with Nolan’s work, you know he likes to sometimes pull the rug out from under you in terms of the way time is treated in his films. Dunkirk is actually a much more straightforward film with a clear story, but Nolan still manages to surprise (and possibly confuse) the audience with his nuanced storytelling. Subtle shifts in perspective via non-linear time jumps keep viewers on their toes. This intercutting of time and place makes the film more compelling, and you, as the viewer, need to string together puzzle pieces to determine the relationships between the characters and their actions.
In the end, Dunkirk, like many war films, brings to life the harsh realities of war. While there is recognition for the effort and sacrifices of many, the underlying theme of the film is that war is brutal and inhumane. Nothing in Nolan’s film glamorizes war or violence. Instead, it speaks to the essence of our humanity, and both the highs and lows that are exhibited during times of crisis. The impact of danger and fear on men, and how it may bring out heroism in one, but the darker nature of another.