Christopher Nolan’s lean and impressionistic Dunkirk is at once an propulsive and intense imagining of the titular battle and a free floating war film that also recalls the work of Terrence Malick, especially The Thin Red Line.
There’s little in the way of characterization and you might not even catch any names as the picture’s British and French soldiers scurry around the beach or attempt to survive the waters of Dunkirk as the Germans close in and their planes unload artillery.
In the early summer of 1940, British soldiers were evacuated from the small city in northern France, but became trapped in the harbor as the Germans had nearly pushed Allied forces out to sea. As the picture opens, a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead flees as the Germans open fire on him and several of his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He makes it to the beach, where the evacuation is set to begin, and the film quickly kicks into motion.
During the course of the picture, we follow several characters – Kenneth Branagh’s valiant Commander Bolton, a courageous fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy, a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and a civilian (Mark Rylance) with a teenage son who pilots a small boat to Dunkirk in an attempt to save as many men as he can. None of these characters could be considered the lead character and there are long stretches when they hardly speak, but rather react to the situations taking place around them.
Those with phobias might not be able to handle Dunkirk as confined spaces, drowning, fire, heights and all other manner of horrific scenario play out as the film’s numerous characters scramble across Nolan’s vast canvasses. The picture looks incredible, from the dizzying fighter pilot sequences to the long shots of thousands of men lined up on the beach awaiting rescue boats.
Rather than platitudinous speeches or bombast (well, the score can occasionally be described as such), Dunkirk celebrates the communal heroism of that day, but also the fear and horror. For every scene in which Rylance and the two young boys on his boat make their way into the heart of a battle for which they are not prepared, there’s another in which a group of young British soldiers hiding out in a boat turn on one another and threaten to kick a Frenchman out, a move that would certainly lead to his doom. In other words, Nolan’s film provides a variety of scenarios displaying a range of human reactions to a tumultuous event.
Nolan is among the most revered of Hollywood’s big budget filmmakers. His pictures often combine crowd pleasing action or science fiction stories with big names and he manages to make them – for lack of a better phrase – thinking man’s pictures that address a mainstream audience. But while I’ve enjoyed his Batman movies, Interstellar and Inception, Dunkirk is – in my opinion – his best work since 2001’s Memento, which still stands as the director’s finest hour.
Dunkirk is ambitious, occasionally terrifying, visually awe inspiring, rousing and incredibly choreographed. It’s among this year’s best films so far.