When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.
Over the past twelve months we’ve seen two major motion pictures concerning the Allied evacuation at the beaches of Dunkirk, which took place during WWII. The first was the lil’ comedy-drama Their Finest (2016). Given today’s diverse cinematic landscape, the aforementioned felt like a step in the right direction, with female director Lone Scherfig at its helm and a unique premise that explored the role women played in the Second World War. Now we have Christopher Nolan’s survival epic, Dunkirk. Yes, Nolan’s movie looks spectacular, but it was always going to, he’s got unfettered studio support — about 75% of the film was shot on IMAX 65mm stock. Slick visuals aside, Dunkirk is far from a contemporary masterpiece, the 46-year old filmmaker (who thinks he’s smarter than your average moviegoer) obviously stuck in the past, Dunkirk featuring an all male cast and about four women who are simply shown serving the solders or doing the dishes. Taking all of this into account, I’d say the former is probably better than the latter. Plus, Dunkirk hasn’t really got a story — and everyone likes a good yarn.
Known for toying with on-screen time, Nolan foolishly employs his non-linear approach to Dunkirk, splitting the narrative into three mini parts, which eventually intersect, each with its own timeframe and terrain — land, sea and air. Alas, with very little in the way of historical context, it’s difficult to truly understand the gravity of the setup. You see, the film fails to explain that Dunkirk takes place after the Battle of France, where several British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were cut off and surrounded by the Germans (who were closing in), some 400,000 soldiers winding up on the beaches of Dunkirk (in northern France), desperate for a way to cross the English Channel. What’s more, the shallow waters prevented larger vessels from aiding in the evacuation, with people who owned smaller boats encouraged to make the crossing in order to help out.
The first of Dunkirk’s segments spans about a week and follows a young soldier named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who, after being tailed by an unseen threat (the Nazis), makes his way onto the beach. Once on the sand, Tommy rejoins the rest of the troops, who are all lined up on the shore, awaiting transfer before they’re bombed by the Germens. After befriending a silent ally named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), the pair decide that the quickest way off the coast would be to head for ‘the mole,’ a long pier where vessels were being regulated by naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy). There, the boys sneak onto a hospital ship — and that’s when things begin to go south.
The second major thread takes place over the course of a day and trails Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a middle-aged mariner who sails his rickety yacht across the Channel to bring home whomever he can fit into his craft. Joined by his 19-year old son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), the trio eventually bump into a one-note Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins (2005), who plays a shell-shocked soldier with a bad case of PTSD. The last portion of the flick transpires over an hour and revolves around two RAF Spitfire pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), who attempt to take out as many Luftwaffe bombers and fighters as they possibly can, while carefully monitoring their limited fuel.
Randomly cutting from one segment to another (without any reason), this labyrinthine structure serves no real purpose, narratively, other than to fulfill Nolan’s own desire to be abstract. Casual leaps from midday to night-time are jarring. There’s also no sense of space or narrative coherence, editor Lee Smith, The Truman Show (1998), frantically blending shots together, this creating a genuine feeling of confusion. Moreover, we see the same event take place several times, from multiple perspectives, never quite sure if what we’re watching is a different action or a repeat — when the film’s released on home-video, I bet some Nolan obsessed geek will spend months trying to piece this triptych together in his mom’s basement. Isn’t cinema supposed to be about cohesive storytelling and well-rounded characters? Just on that, the people we follow through this fragmented war zone have zero personality, bar Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, with Nolan’s first solo screenplay since Inception (2010) lacking any sort of characterization. What we have is a story of survival without a soul worth caring about.
Technically, Dunkirk is rather impressive, the production favoring practical over computer-generated visuals. There’s a dizzying aerial dogfight with some good yet nauseating point-of-view shots, Nolan squeezing his cameras into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane. And with actual jets and vessels (including some that were active in the real-life Dunkirk evacuation) the action looks pretty darn authentic, with thousands of extras brought on board to emulate swarms of soldiers. Unfortunately, some of the film’s CGI sticks out like a sore thumb, namely the smoke coming out of the airborne fighters — if this is the best Nolan can do with his VFX, its no wonder he dislikes digital! Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Interstellar (2014), blends big sweeping vistas with intimate, claustrophobic close-ups — shots of the young men gasping for air while drowning in the dark could’ve been effective had the script focused on building drama. Sure, these images are striking, but they lack any sort of poignant impact. Even Hans Zimmer’s tick-tocking score fails to add weight to proceedings, Dunkirk an emotionless journey.
Performances, on the whole, are generally serviceable. Spielberg’s new favorite actor Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (2015), is good as Mr. Dawson, a courageous citizen who joins the armada of rescue boats, while breakout star Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), isn’t bad as his young shipmate George, his tragic fate illustrating the randomness of war. Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), spends the majority of the film wearing a mask that covers his face, his dialogue impossible to understand (sound familiar?), while Kenneth Branagh stares off into the distance, probably thinking about his upcoming project, Murder on the Orient Express (2017). Then there’s One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles, most likely cast so that swooning tweens will fork out cash to see a Christopher Nolan movie, contrary to whatever the filmmaker has said in the past about not realizing how famous Styles was before adding him to the payroll.
Devoid of any humor (whatsoever), this is not Fun-kirk. Even at a mere 106 minutes — Nolan’s shortest movie since his 1998 feature debut, Following — Dunkirk still feels like a loud, tedious, lifeless slog. Lacking any sort of story or heart, this bloodless PG-13 wartime thriller stands as another massive disappointment from cinephiles’ golden-boy, Christopher Nolan. And just like the titular real-life battle, Nolan’s Dunkirk is far from a triumphant victory.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Mr. Movie