This just might be the most difficult review I’ve had to write thus far.
Most of the time, I see a new film relatively early in the weekend and the review isn’t supposed to be live until Monday, so I get a little bit of time to digest and work out my thoughts. It isn’t uncommon to see the film early on a Sunday like with this one, but I haven’t had nearly as much to say with less time to figure it out than with Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature, Dunkirk.
I won’t be spending too much time discussing how the plot moves, but I’m making a decision right here. Assume that anything past this point could possibly count as a spoiler, whether it’s about the plot directly or just about how the film is structured, which is always important in Nolan films. I desperately want you to see this, and you should go in as blind as possible, but maybe my thoughts can convince you.
Let’s tackle the plot real quickly then, as a formality. The film takes place over three locations with slightly different times, but these are all during the end of May in 1940.
The first section is called “The Mole” and takes place over the course of a week. Tommy, a young British soldier, runs out of the town of Dunkirk towards the beach to find British and French troops lined up and waiting for evacuation. He and another young soldier find a man left for dead on a stretcher and race to get him to the departing medical boat, where they aren’t allowed to stay. The boat is attacked, and they are able to save a few more men from being crushed by it. They get on another boat, which is then torpedoed. The next day, after having made it back to shore, the three young men follow a group of Scottish soldiers who found a beached boat outside of the perimeter. They hid out below deck and plan to take it to sea once the tide rises. German soldiers use it for target practice, putting holes in the hull and threatening the soldiers within. They’re able to leave the beach, but the boat takes on too much water. They escape and find help from a civilian boat, which brings them home.
The second section is called “The Sea” and takes place over the course of one day. The Royal Navy is commandeering civilian boats from England so that the sailors can rescue more soldiers from the beaches. An older man, Mr. Dawson, complies with the Navy, but decides to captain the boat himself, along with his son Peter and teenage George. They come upon a shell-shocked soldier who survived a U-boat attack. When the soldier realizes that the boat is going into the warzone, he tries to overpower the old man and accidentally knocks George down, and he seriously injures his head. They see a British plane go down and rescue the pilot from the crash, and then see two ships in danger. The first has men fleeing from it already, and the second one is being bombed as they arrive. The Dawson’s and the two rescued soldiers pick up as many men as they possibly can before barely avoiding an igniting oil spill. At this point, it is revealed that George has died from his injuries. Peter hides this from the soldier who inadvertently caused it, telling him that he’s doing well and will be alright. They all make it back to shore, and Mr. Dawson is congratulated on saving so many men.
The third section is simply referred to as “The Air” and it only takes place over the course of a single hour. We begin with three Spitfire pilots on their way to provide support for the troops at Dunkirk, though they have limited fuel. The squadron leader is shot down in an early skirmish that also leaves one of their fuel gauges broken. That man, Farrier, and his ally, Collins, continue on. In a later fight, Collins is shot down, but chooses to make a water landing. Farrier believes that Collins landed safely so he carries on to protect the ships in the water. He’s able to take down several more fighters and even a bomber, but he runs out of fuel before he can leave. He coasts the plane over the enemy beach before making a landing. Farrier is captured by German soldiers just after burning his plane and destroying everything within it.
I know, I ended up doing pretty much the whole plot anyways. Oops.
Christopher Nolan is one of my very favorite working filmmakers, so I already had fairly high expectations walking in. Dunkirk blew me away in every single possible fashion. I can’t recall the last time that I could feel my heartbeat through every single square inch of my entire body, and that lasted through the credits as well.
Most of the cast is comprised of relative unknowns like Fionn Whitehead and the feature film debut of Harry Styles. The cast also features the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy. Every single person in this film plays their part to perfection. Most of the time, they are deliberately understated, playing into the stereotype of British people as stoic and calm. They are here to do a job, and emotion has no role in it. This is especially moving when the civilian boats arrive at the beach and all of the incoming rescuers are stone-faced.
Nolan has plenty of experience with varying timelines occurring simultaneously, particularly in films like Memento and Inception. This is done so masterfully here in Dunkirk. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed until he wants you to see how important it is. Cillian Murphy, for example, exists almost entirely as the shell-shocked soldier in The Sea, but we do briefly see him fully in control of his faculties before he gets on the boat that is attacked, and the sudden juxtaposition of the collected leader and the shaken victim is stunning. Similarly, the simple image of a waving hand changes drastically from two different perspectives, and can completely change your mind on how a previous scene actually happened.
Hoyte Van Hoytema returns from Interstellar as cinematographer, and I’m so very thankful for that. The shot composition is striking and gorgeous without removing the haunting reality of the true events taking place. As Patty previously stated, any number of frames from Dunkirk could be isolated and be held up as classics of cinema with time.
So much credit needs to be given to every person who worked on the audio for Dunkirk, as the sound design is arguably the strongest facet of all. This goes beyond the score from frequent collaborate Hans Zimmer, who is of course in peak form, but to the very organization of every sound in the film. Each gunshot shakes you to your core and rattles throughout your body; the goal is to firmly place you directly in the line of fire and carry you on this visceral ride. The constant sounds of stopwatch ticking and propeller spinning adds tension even as we jump in between scenes that aren’t happening together.
If given the time, I’m sure I could continue to rave about Dunkirk until my fingers fell off and my keyboard exploded. I truly do believe there is that much to discuss here. There is a very good chance that I’ll come back with another piece as I view the film again because I will ABSOLUTELY be viewing the film again before it leaves theaters. Dunkirk deserves and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and my IMAX screening was breathtaking for the entire runtime.