In a summer filled with hugely successful blockbuster releases, perhaps none was more highly anticipated than the latest film from Christopher Nolan. While Dunkirk delivers all the aesthetic glory promised in the trailers, the World War II epic left me a bit disappointed.
Right off the bat, the visual presence of this film is absolutely breathtaking…truly astonishing. Nolan’s steadfast dedication to shoot it in 70mm, mainly with IMAX cameras, paid off handsomely. He turned to Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) to be director of photography again because his cinematography does a great job portraying scale. He captured some incredibly grand, sweeping wide shots that just swallow the audience. His vision of the French beach builds a foreboding ambient character of bleak, gray hopelessness where the nearly a half-million soldiers waited to die. On the open water the enormity and endless reach of the ocean reduces the small, recreational rescue vessels to specks. The aerial sequences are wonderfully dizzying. Some creative camera rigs attached to the aircraft make for some really amazing shots and help to bring the audience on board for the ride.
Nathan Crowley has been Nolan’s go-to-guy for production design since Batman Begins. His understanding of the director’s vision is a key component and he did a great job keeping the aesthetic of the film in line and on track from start to finish. To complement the ocular feast, Hans Zimmer teamed up with Nolan for a sixth time and composed a masterful score like only he could. Considering the lack of dialogue, his score is responsible for carrying much of the emotional burden. The music heightened the tension and constructed a subconscious apprehensiveness in between the moments of rattling action. The majority of those spectacular action sequences were done with amazing, grounded practical effects. Fantastic work from the sound effects department and film editing by another longtime Nolan stalwart, Lee Smith, pumped that extra level of intensity into film. The sheer volume of humanity required to convey the size of the army on the beach was an undertaking in and of itself. A literal army of extras and a dedicated stunt and special effects crew brought crucial integrity and authenticity to the battlefield…an absolute must. Of course there had to be some CGI, but it’s hard to pinpoint without a trained eye and a bit of deduction.
Nolan continued his love affair with non-linear storytelling. Where it worked very well in the past (Memento, Inception, Interstellar) it makes for a bit of an odd pairing in this context. Most iconic (and really just most) war films are either character or story driven and Dunkirk is neither. The film is much more circumstantial. The quality of the screenplay is evident in the final product, but Nolan didn’t invest in dialogue which makes it difficult to connect with the characters. Although they have stories to be told, there’s a much grander narrative funneled through their experiences. That helps to conjure up that epic nature he was aiming for but creates an odd feeling of separation with the audience. There is no main character and it’s tough to get invested in any of them, leaving the audience to experience the events on their own. The film is shot with such masterful precision that the sequences still have a big payoff, they’re enveloping. A unique aspect of this film is that audience essentially bears witness to the spectacle, where they would traditionally experience the film by relating to the character(s). An interesting choice by Nolan, which plays well enough in IMAX but may not translate so well to smaller screens.
Nolan favorites Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy joined Academy Award winner Mark Rylance to head very strong trio of talented actors in prominent roles. Sadly, none of their performances really added any extra layers of quality. Of the three, Rylance had the only semi-relatable character but his rigid stoicism didn’t seem particularly reasonable given the circumstances…maybe it’s a British thing. Hardy spends the majority of the film talking into an oxygen mask inside the cockpit of his fighter jet, making him even more difficult to understand than his previous portrayal of the masked man Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Murphy on the other hand has very limited screen time and dialogue, but plays a big part as a shell shocked survivor. The majority of the story centers on a group of young men just trying to survive the beach and make it home, played by Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard and Aneurin Barnard. For what it’s worth, Styles wasn’t bad in his feature film debut and the rest of the lads did a good job embodying the spirit of young men at war.
This movie is a bit of an odd duck for me. I waited a few extra days to let it simmer and see if my opinion would change at all. When the first trailers came out for this film, naturally I was excited. All year I waited for Dunkirk to come along and set the bar for Best Picture, which it very well may have done, but the bar is just a bit lower than I anticipated. The quality and technique in the film-making is exceptional. Working it over in my mind gave me a much deeper appreciation for its strengths but also gave me a better understanding of its weaknesses. Although it’s easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year and certainly checks many of the requisite boxes for Best Picture nominees, personally, I just didn’t love it. I really wanted to…really.
Recommendation: This movie is absolutely worth seeing, especially in IMAX 70mm. Understandably, not everyone is going to want to shell out $25 for a movie ticket like I did, but if you are a film purist it’s definitely the way to go. It’s not incredibly violent or graphic for a war movie either, so that shouldn’t put you off. Just be aware that the screen you see it on will impact how you perceive the film.