Christopher Nolan’s latest war epic takes a surprisingly intimate look at the evacuation of Allied troops from their cornered position in Dunkirk during the Second World War – a feat that relied on mass support from civilian vessels to secure a future for huge numbers of British troops. There is no doubt that this is a visually beautiful film that burdens the viewer with the emotional weight of the intricate atrocities that hindered the evacuation process, but I can’t help but feel (and I can’t believe I’m saying this given the film’s $100 million budget) that it fails to capture the full scope and scale of this historic event.
Nolan’s script divides the action into three strands: action on land near the mole (a breakwater from which the evacuation takes place); a single civilian boat heading to Dunkirk and life in the air from the viewpoint of three RAF pilots. I found the jumping between these strands a little confusing, particularly as the action also seems to jump through time, cutting from night to day and back again in a matter of seconds. Regardless, this setup takes the viewer closer to the action; instead of viewing the event ‘Dunkirk’ as a whole, Nolan immerses us in the viewpoints of a handful of people. This builds a visceral sense of danger, but without a more macro sense of the bigger picture, I felt the film lacked urgency and all too often scenes felt unrealistically empty in terms of people on the ground.
At the start of the film we’re introduced to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier trying to make his way towards the front of the evacuation queue; he amasses similar comrades along the way and it’s in the fates of the trio of young protagonists: Tommy, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) that the tension in the film lies. I’m not too sure about the inclusion of Styles, he does a much better job than one would expect but I found it hard to get away from the fact that it’s him. This also applies to Kenneth Branagh who plays a very Gilderoy Lockhart like commander as he stands aloft the Mole overseeing the evacuation. I’m not sure it was wise to include prominent faces is this film, they awkwardly take the viewer out of the moment, out of the action, erasing the sense that the soldiers being portrayed were ordinary, everyday people.
In terms of plot, Dunkirk feels a bit like Nolan has chosen one of every type of sweet at a war themed pick and mix stand. The film includes bombings, planes ditching, accidental injury, sinking ships, shooting etc. etc. Sure, all of this happened, but Nolan takes too many happenings to the extreme; planes don’t just ditch, they ditch and the pilot can’t get out; planes don’t just land, they land having only just got the landing gear down in time. For a film with so much prevalent danger, too many of the film’s key players are subject to remarkably little harm.
Now, I realise this review is full of criticism; you should be aware that I have nitpicked for the sake of nitpicking, so I shall finish as I began. This is an epic war film. Nolan has brought some truly fantastic action sequences to life, the ensemble cast is solid and the visuals truly stunning. Dunkirk sucks you in an throws your emotions through this historic event at a captivating pace; but be aware that ‘Dunkirk’ is not the star of this film, that honour is bestowed on the ‘people’. Overall I give Dunkirk a rating of 4/5.