“Dunkirk” is the new film from writer and director Christopher Nolan, and follows the attempted evacuation of some 400,000 British soldiers off the French beach of the titular city in the early stages of World War II. The film stars Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy, and is Nolan’s first directorial effort since 2014’s “Interstellar.”
It’s important to know a few things going into this film. First, the plot is not told in a linear order. It jumps around locations and time, often revisiting events we’ve already seen from different perspectives. Secondly, there is little dialogue or character development; Nolan lets the events speak for themselves. Both of these things are both “Dunkirk’s” biggest strength and weakness.
It takes about half the film for Nolan’s plan to come into focus, but eventually you realize that things aren’t happening in the chronological order that they once appeared. Characters who we thought were one place are suddenly in another and scenes cut back and forth from night to day. Sometimes this creates a grand sense of understanding, as we were left pondering the fate of a character because it cut away from them too soon in a previous scene, or we suddenly see how one person got to where they did. It does create some chaos and tension, too, because you are never sure where in the timeline or on the map the scene you are watching is taking place.
However it can also ruin some of the tension and flow the film is at times doing a masterful job of setting up. A character will be looking out at the beach in one shot and it will be daytime in the background, but the reverse shot will be characters in the water at dusk; it takes you out of the film because your brain subconsciously realizes something isn’t right. It is also hard for the film to build to some sense of relief or resolution, because you don’t know when an event — or the film, for that matter — is fully resolved. It can be argued this is to make you feel uneasy and I would agree; however that doesn’t excuse the fact that the film never seemed like it was building to any sort of climax before suddenly arriving at one and just … ending.
As far as the characters go, we really don’t learn much about any of them. In fact, I could only give you the name of two people in this film, and I honestly am not sure if any of the others are even given names. They are listed in the credits, but I don’t think ever said. This works, because the soldiers can represent any and all men who served in WWII, and we just root for them because we are fellow humans. However we never feel any attachment to them, and partnered with the constantly shifting narratives it can make it hard to keep track of who is where and who is alright.
The film is absolutely stunning to look at, there is no denying that. Shot on 65 mm film stock by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, there are some frames in this that took my breath away. From vast ocean wide shots with the sun glimmering off the water to dusty and foggy beaches that make you feel the cold breeze hitting your face, Nolan and Hoytema put you into the world and never let you leave.
“Dunkirk” isn’t a film for everybody, nor is it a straight action blockbuster like some may expect given its director/genre/release date/trailers, and there will be people put off by its lack of characterization and intentionally messy and at times misleading plot. However for those brave enough to roll the dice, there are a lot of genuine moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout the film’s — somewhat shockingly short — 106 minutes, and even if it isn’t as great as “The Hurt Locker” or as culturally significant as “Saving Private Ryan,” this is one day at the beach you should try taking.
Critic’s rating: 7 out of 10.