Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Run Time: 106 mins
‘Dunkirk’ is one of my most hotly anticipated films of the year, a war film based on the titular 1940 event directed by one of my favourite directors, Christopher Nolan. Nolan has been behind some of my favourite films of all time such as ‘Inception’, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Prestige’ to name a few and even his weaker films are still excellent in their own right. The man hasn’t put a foot wrong yet and consistently crafts intelligent films for his audiences. ‘Dunkirk’ is another lofty concept by this intelligent director, a retelling of the World War Two event told in the structure of a triptych. We follow front-line soldiers for a week on land, we follow Mark Rylance’s civilian, Mr Dawson take their boat rather than have it commandeered by the Royal Navy out to sea to rescue soldiers over a day. Finally, we follow three RAF Spitfires (one being Tom Hardy) who provide air support to the battle over an hour. As the film progresses, we see how these three stories interlink with each other. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers such as Nolan try and experiment with genre convention. As good as some war films are, by-and-large there are always characters which we can sympathise with who guide the audience’s way through the film – not so much here. Nolan’s script is also reportedly very short with not a lot of dialogue so frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer’s score needs to cut the mustard to give the film its flow as well as cinematography and editing. Initial reviews for this film have been extremely positive, some even citing this film as his best work.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a lot to admire in ‘Dunkirk’, unfortunately I also have a lot of problems with it. It’s not a bad film by any means but Nolan misses the mark for me in a story that is too ambitious and hard to have any care towards. This was a point that kept cropping up in a lot of the more lukewarm reviews that I read prior to watching the film and I got a little bit annoyed as it seems as if those reviewers want convention. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the actual tone of the film seems off and I didn’t really find myself caring much for not just the characters but the actual event as the approach for me felt too conservative. It’s a very strange approach to take and I applaud Nolan for taking it but along with other reasons which I will discuss, I couldn’t find an emotional response.
The performances and characters in this film aren’t particularly developed as mentioned as Nolan tries to tell the story as it is, not by emotionally manipulating its audience by caring for its characters. That said, Fionn Whitehead certainly makes an impression in the highest-billed role and epitomises the notion of the faceless soldier. Barry Keoghan as a young boy heading off to sea with Mark Rylance’s father is also excellent. Even Harry Styles manages to suprisingly make an impression as a young British Private. Out of the more veteran cast, it is only really Mark Rylance that makes a strong impression whose guilt-ridden self haunts the picture throughout. The rest of the performances are all serviceable but could have been played by anyone – Kenneth Branagh is particularly wasted in a completely expository role only in the film to tell audiences of the wider context and Tom Hardy, again covered by a mask doesn’t have all that much to do.
The visual effects are frequently impressive but I have to say there was nothing mind-blowing about this film compared to other Nolan works. There wasn’t a single moment which particularly captivated me to gaze at the screen in awe unlike pretty much the rest of Nolan’s filmography. This was also why I frequently failed to connect with ‘Dunkirk’ as the battle isn’t visually done justice. The film also fails in establishing a sense of scope – we are only ever told mainly by Branagh’s expository Captain of what is happening in terms of the battle as opposed to being given a visual representation. It’s hard to care for a film that looks smaller than it is.
Hans Zimmer’s score plays an integral part of the film, particularly with Nolan’s lack of dialogue but none of it really managed to stick with me or reach the heights of some of his previous Nolan work. Many have described his score as intensifying with the events being portrayed on-screen but I found it to be quite tonally jumbled and again, as Nolan cannot establish a sense of scope, it all feels a bit for nothing. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is also serviceable but again, there was nothing particularly memorable to latch onto compared to what I had expected.
Overall, ‘Dunkirk’ is a disappointment when it comes to Nolan’s previous films and I’m quite frustrated with it. Perhaps my expectations were too high and this is a wildly different film compared to the rest of his back catalogue. There can be no doubt of Nolan’s ambition with this project but ‘Dunkirk’ is frequently hollow and empty. I can appreciate what Nolan was trying to do with this and perhaps a rewatch may iron out some of these negatives but it defintely failed to capture me like the rest of Nolan’s work does the first time. This review may sound negative – don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film but it falls well short of what I have come to expect from this masterful director. I’d still recommend going and seeing it as it is a story that needs to be told and there are quite a few nice moments but ultimately, the film left me rather cold in its depiction of this momentous event.