“Survival is victory.”
In Dunkirk, filmmaker extraordinaire Christopher Nolan honors the incredible World War II events on the northern coast of France and nearby English Channel between May 26 and June 4 in 1940. Endless Allied troops seek escape from surrounding Axis forces as Nolan presents three plotlines set in the air, sea and land with varying timespans.
Nolan’s tenth feature film as a director concentrates on the essential evacuation details plus situational and emotional aspects involving this amazing historical event where the outcome is absolute. The enemy will win this battle, but how do the Allied troops live to fight another day? Audiences know the outcome as well, but it’s the journey of how the conclusion unfolds that holds audience interest.
Character development and logistical details (terms, etc.) are not essential here as filmmakers concentrate on the characters’ actions, which produces an amazing experience where the bare-bone events flower in a full-figured visual work. Filmmakers show a lot without words or subtitles/text, but when they do it’s very effective (e.g. German propaganda papers dropped in the area). Audiences can easily latch onto the plot while understanding the characters’ perspective as in the following dialogue example:
Commander Bolton: You can practically see it from here.
Captain Winnant: What?
The characters’ names make a great reference, but are not essential in the storytelling. Fionn Whitehead (TV mini-series Him) makes his feature film debut as British Army private Tommy while Harry Styles (former One Dimension music group member) also debuts as a private named Alex. Aneurin Barnard plays a French soldier trying to survive who also encounters this duo.
Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins) plays a stranded soldier who has the best character development in a role that represents war’s immense toll on a person. “He may never be himself again,” says Mr. Dawson, played by Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, BFG), a local boater who sails to save soldiers along with his son Peter, played by Tom Glynn-Carney, and friend George, played by Barry Keoghan.
The portrayed Royal Air Force pilot cast includes Jack Lowden as Collins and Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max, The Revenant) as Farrier who gradually gels into his memorable performance. No need to know Farrier’s background. Just watch his heroics.
High ranking officers are portrayed by Sir Kenneth Branagh (Allied Naval Commander Bolton who was partly based on James Campbell Clouston) and James D’Arcy (Allied Army Colonel Winnant). Besides a tension relieving aside about difference in their military divisions, these men carry the heavy burden of responsibility for so many lives. Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing) and D’Arcy (TV’s Marvel Agent Carter) bring just the right tone and weight.
Nolan also found a way to get his frequent cast member Michael Caine into the film through the radio communications along with another cast mainstay John Nolan who plays a blind man.
The educational and historical elements in the film lay thick, but do not require much effort to understand. For example, audiences can deduce a mole’s definition just by carefully watching the film. Observant viewers will catch even more, which enhances the experience, as characters naturally convey important information in their actions and dialogue. Just one look means so much.
Nolan does not put an individual face on the “German” enemy, especially during the effective beginning chase sequence through the streets of Dunkirk and the sequence with soldiers at the bottom of an abandoned boat. Audiences always have a collective enemy point-of-view, which also effectively adds to the suspense, tension and soldiers’ perspective.
Composer Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight) again partners with Nolan and his team for the outstanding musical score. Audiences will also hear specially engineered sounds from Nolan’s own pocket watch in the score and Enigma Variations from British composer Edward Elgar.
The sound department enhances incredible moments ranging from gunfire hitting an abandoned ship to the sound of men plunging into the water.
Dunkirk filmmakers achieve a work almost as miraculous as the depicted event that was a key turning point in World War II. Cinematography duties are well handled by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) and his crew who used 60-pound handheld IMAX cameras for many filming sequences. Dunkirk is also only the third this decade shot in 70MM.
The memorable visuals include immense foam in the beach from the churning sea and amazing aerial views towards the sea where panning cameras capture clear images that eventually morph into shiny images once the sun sprays over the sea.
Small victories, caring actions and morale support flow through every character as the stark, eerie situations intensify as time passes. Characters also make amazing connections as others explain important logistics (known artillery ranges, water temperature and levels for boats, when the tide comes in, etc.) so the audience knows what’s happening.
This filmmaking crew also used minimal CGI and had up to 50 real ships in the water including a current French T-47-class destroyer ‘Maillé-Brézé’ (D627) portrayed British destroyers HMS ‘Vivacious’ (D36) and HMS ‘Vanquisher’ (D54).
Dunkirk comes highly recommended and rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language. This 106-minute film dismisses the gory details and blood without losing the impact these violent events have on anyone.
Dunkirk is an international co-production among the United States, United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands.