Christopher Nolan delivers again in Dunkirk; there’s character development, a thrilling plot and emotional connection in a film based on history that everybody already knows the ending to. He crafted the film in three segments, land, air and sea. Each segment takes place across a different timeframe, which sounds confusing at first, but we are helped along by visual cues that allows us to track the linear plot.
Characters in each segment are desperately trying to either help the soldiers get home across the 26 miles of open ocean or get themselves home, one way or the other. Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy, the last surviving member of his band of soldiers, that tries all ways and means to get off Dunkirk, which involves utilizing wounded soldiers and hiding below the Mole to try and sneak aboard departing ships. He is helped along by Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who is trapped in a similar situation. The Mole is a long concrete jetty, which the army used to evacuate the bulk of its troops. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), in charge of evacuation, takes extreme measures to protect the Mole, including sacrificing sinking ships and men. Due to shallow beaches, the big warships can’t get close to the beach to evacuate the soldiers and the only entry/exit point is the Mole.
This leads us to sea, where we follow Mr Dawson and his young crew on a desperate mission. The navy commissioned smaller vessels all across England in order to sail to Dunkirk and save as many soldiers as they can. Taking on the mission without any complaints or hesitation, they do the best they can under the circumstances, which is really all people can do in times of war. Along the way, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), who insists on turning back, as he is shell-shocked from being bombed. His hopelessness and distress develops into deep conversations with Mr Dawson and Peter about the necessity of duty in desperate times and what a person could do in order to make things seem just that little bit better.
We follow the story of two other pilots in the Fortis squadron, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and we witness breathtaking aerial feats (and CGI) as well as gut-wrenching bravery from these men who stand between the English soldiers and the German bombs. Without giving too much away, Farrier’s fuel meter gets damaged in a clash and he has to decide between pushing forward without any certainty that he might return or heading straight for safety.
Harry Styles was surprisingly good. I went in honestly not expecting too much from him but his impassioned scene with Barnard as their characters reached an impasse impressed me. Kudos to Nolan as well, for not over-using his character in order to pander to the fangirls. His entry into the story was not heralded or in your face but melded in seamlessly. His character, Alex, another desperate soldier trying to get home, juxtaposed Whitehead’s more moral and level-headed character nicely and depicted the extreme lengths and moral depravity a man might resort to in order for his own survival.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, ever present in Nolan’s films, paired the film nicely, keeping the pace upbeat during dramatic scenes and giving it a more sombre tone during emotionally-laden scenes. Nolan carefully curates every single part of the film to give the audience an experience, for example, insisting that the entire cast be British for authenticity, and looking for actual vessels used in the evacuation. It is because of this attention to detail that sets his films apart from other blockbusters.
When the film ended, I was transfixed in my seat by what I’d just watched. It was, if I may say so myself, better than Inception (2010). Nolan had weaved the various storylines together in a way that while non-linear, made it mesmerizing to watch. Each main character had a key role to play in how the story ended. His message came through clearly, no life was not worth saving, be it English vs French, private vs officer. Everyone was important.
This film was twenty five years in the making, since Nolan crossed the English Channel, and it was a worthwhile wait.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Things to consider:
Warning: spoilers ahead of this point
- Did Tommy know beforehand that Gibson was not an English soldier? His insistence at protecting him from Alex was so immediate and intuitive; it was almost like he knew that it was going to happen sooner or later. Before the beach, he didn’t even know Gibson and yet he was willing to stand between him and Alex’s gun.
- Why wasn’t there any conversation or interaction between Collins and the Shivering Soldier? I’m assuming the Shivering Soldier is the leader of the squadron of planes that included Farrier (Tom Hardy), shot down just prior to Mr Dawson picking him up at sea.
Favourite scene: Mr Dawson explaining to the Shivering Soldier why he was honour and duty bound to go to Dunkirk to save as many people as he can, after the Soldier insists that they turn around. Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy both gave emotional performances that culminated in a physical altercation. The desperation Murphy conveys is balanced out stakly by Rylance’s steadfastness. Rylance gave a stoic answer as to why he was pushing forward despite the danger and fear and we only learn later why Mr Dawson and Peter were so insistent in rescuing the soldiers – his older son had been a pilot who’d gone missing.
What I had wanted to see: More of Kenneth Branagh. He stole every scene he was in. Before Dunkirk, I’d only known him in Harry Potter as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, who was a bit of a dork. But in here, he commanded respect and played his character as a man of honour who had to make hard choices during a time where everybody was looking to him for guidance. I really wanted more of him, not because it contributed more to the story but because he brought such a strong gravitas to each scene.
I would have also loved to see Alex and Tommy coming to terms with Gibson’s death, seeing as just earlier, they were nearly coming to blows regarding Gibson’s survival. It’s like they forgot about him after they left the tugboat.
Last but not least, Tom Hardy. There has to be more to that story.
Random fact: Christopher Nolan had no idea who Harry Styles was before he cast him. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t think I was that aware really of how famous Harry was. I mean, my daughter had talked about him. My kids talked about him, but I wasn’t really that aware of it.”
His film favourites are all present in this film as well: Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Hans Zimmer. The only one not shown on screen, Michael Caine, was given a voice cameo role as Fortis Leader.
Comments and discussions are welcomed by the writer.