DUNKIRK – 2017 – 106 minutes -★★★★1/2
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Harry Styles (Alex), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills).
Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Production Design.
Where to watch: Blu ray or DVD, streaming on Google Play.
Dunkirk (n) 1. a seaport in northern France 2. site of an amphibious evacuation, when over 300,000 British troops were evacuated while under enemy fire 3. a crisis in which a desperate effort is the only alternative to defeat.
As you can see from the dictionary definition, Dunkirk began as a geographic location. Then it became known as the site of one of the greatest evacuations in human history. Then it became something more, something that perfectly encompasses the British demeanor of courage under fire. Christopher Nolan’s movie encapsulates all three meanings, in one tense, gripping film.
The movie doesn’t build tension, it begins with it. There is some text, providing very basic detail: In the early days of World War II, the Germans have pushed through France, backing the British up to the sea. Trapped there in Dunkirk, they await the arrival of ships to evacuate them.
Nolan decided to tell the story in a very original way. There are three different narrative threads: one on land, one on the sea, and one in the air. They each cover a different period of time: one week, one day, and one hour respectively. On paper this sounds tricky to pull off, or perhaps a bit gimmicky. But it works to perfection. The movie cuts from story to story, and we never lose sight of what we are seeing or who we are following. Sometimes the threads of the narratives overlap, or come together.
On the land we see most of the action through the eyes of young private Tommy (played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is justifiably frightened out of his wits, and wants to get on a ship as soon as possible. He meets up with another young soldier, a mystery man who may be hiding a secret, and their plans to sneak on a boat go from bad to worse.
On the sea, we follow one of the “little ships”, as they were affectionately called. Britain put out the call to all willing private vessels to cross the channel and assist in the evacuation of soldiers. Over 800 ships answered that call. In the movie we follow the Moonstone, piloted by a middle-aged Mr. Dawson, accompanied by his young son and another young man. Mark Rylance brings a quiet self-assurance to his portrayal of Dawson. He is the perfect actor for this role, for he is representative of all of the little ship owners, who crossed the channel into a war zone because it was the right thing to do.
In the air, we follow Tom Hardy as Farrier, the pilot of a British Spitfire. Farrier never loses his cool, even when engaged in a dogfight with an enemy plane. The aerial photography in this movie is some of the best ever captured on film. The entire movie was shot in large format, either 65 or 70 mm, and the aerial scenes in particular look glorious.
Eventually all three story lines will meet up, in time and space, bringing some of the now-familiar characters together. Technically, every aspect of this movie is near-flawless. Christopher Nolan eschews digital effects, and shoots as much as he can practically. This adds to the realism of the film, which is almost unbearably tense. I can’t recall a single other film I’ve seen which began with the tension this high, and then just kept increasing it. The film score has a ticking clock sound, and the music itself has a metronomic quality which never lets the viewer forget that time is passing, that something is imminent.
When I saw this movie the first time in the theater, I thought it had the best sound quality of any movie I’d ever seen. That holds up on the home theater as well. The editing works flawlessly with the score, as the camera cuts from one story line to another, without ever confusing the viewer. I think this movie may have the least amount of dialogue of any major film in quite some time. It is so visceral that little dialogue is needed. When words are needed, they are brief and to the point. Kenneth Brannagh as Commander Bolton gets to deliver some of the most memorable.
On the surface, the Dunkirk evacuation is about a failure, not a success. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers fleeing from the enemy and abandoning the French. But of course, it was so much more than that. Those same British soldiers would live to fight on, and many would give their lives in the years to come as Europe was reclaimed from the Axis armies, foot by foot, inch by inch. Had the British not succeeded in getting off the beaches at Dunkirk, the war could have taken a very different turn. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those men, who stood there watching, waiting for a ship. And a particular debt goes to those people who got into their fishing trawlers and pleasure cruisers on the English coast, not because they had to, but because they were asked.