I’ll tell you right up front; I love everything Christopher Nolan has done. He is a phenomenal storyteller and filmmaker. I went into Dunkirk with a lot of expectation. I was not disappointed. I saw it in 70mm and IMAX and it looked beautiful. I didn’t know very much about Dunkirk other than the majority of the British army had been stranded at this seaside town in France surrounded by the Germans in 1940 and it was a disaster. I didn’t know the story of how they got off the beach and the effort of civilian boats to retrieve the army. If they hadn’t been successful getting their troops back the outcome of the war might have been horribly different. Out of disaster was born a very patriotic moment and huge emotional victory.
Nolan tells the story in three parts: The Mole – which follows a group of young soldiers desperately trying to get off the beach. The Sea – which follows an older man, his son and his son’s friend as they head out on their boat to try and rescue the soldiers. The Air – which follows a trio of British Spitfires headed for Dunkirk to provide support for the evacuation. Each of these threads is compelling on their own but as with all of Nolan’s previous work, it isn’t just a straight ahead narrative. He likes to play with timelines and Dunkirk is no different. All three stories are happening at different times but will intersect by the end in a wonderful way.
There is very little dialogue in the film. The story is told visually using dialogue as punctuation. There is very little grandstanding either. You don’t see a lot of sentimentality. It’s very subtle. It’s amazing how Nolan can seem so reserved while delivering an epic tale but nothing is ever forced. The same goes for the acting.
Tom Hardy plays one of the pilots in the air and he spends most of his screen time with a mask over his face so that all you can see are his very expressive eyes. Noland loves to cover Hardy’s face, just think back to The Dark Knight Rises. Another Nolan regular, Cillian Murphy plays a significant part in The Sea storyline as a rescued soldier with severe ‘shell shock’. Mark Rylance delivers his usual strong but reserved performance. Kenneth Branagh is very good as the Navy commander overseeing the operation from the beach. The young actors we see on the beach are all very solid and that includes boy band star Harry Styles. No kidding! He fits right in and does a fine job.
By the way, a mole, per the dictionary, is “a large solid structure on a shore serving as a pier, breakwater, or causeway.” The British used this so the soldiers could board the large ships. The British would only send one destroyer at a time worried that the Germans would destroy them if they were sent all at once. This is why they pressed the civilian ships into service.
The aerial scenes are impressive. I found myself moving in my seat in the direction the planes moved. I felt immersed in the sky with those planes.
The beach scenes also felt like those old school David Lean epics of the 50s and 60s. Nolan doesn’t like to use CGI so all those men on the beach are real people. It makes a difference.
Dunkirk is a powerful film. Nolan has told a large story very clearly while still injecting his penchant to play with timelines. The tension builds and builds until the very end and you feel as if you were rescued along with those boys on the beach. It’s a great story that many don’t know. Mr. Nolan has created a great piece of entertainment that will also educate and deepen our appreciation for those that fought and won that war.