During the May 1940 battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force and part of the French army it is assisting, are cut off from the rest of the French army by the German advance. Encircled, they retreat around the port of Dunkirk, near the Belgian border. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill orders all available craft to collect the stranded soldiers. Over 900 vessels rescue nearly 400,000 soldiers. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Louise Keller:
Visceral, immersive, intense, involving, harrowing, powerful, unforgettable... These are some of the adjective to describe Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, whose explosive action is condensed into a powderkeg of a movie. Nolan has taken a non-linear approach, using time as a tool to incorporate a holistic approach, grappling with three story strands - on land, sea and in the air. During the tight 106 minute running time, our emotions are tightly coiled and the film's massive scale is countered by the minutia that it perfectly showcases.
This is a film about mood that draws us into the epicentre. We live and breathe it; exacerbated by Hans Zimmer's extraordinary monotonic score whose underlying relentless rhythms are reminiscent of an ominous time bomb. A hellish metronome. The music and soundscape are seamlessly intertwined and ratcheted to almost untenable decibels, often masking dialogue. There's a rumbling throughout the cinema as the vibrations resonate to the variance of textures. We feel it right to the core. I could hardly breathe.
The dialogue is minimal and functional. The characters have no backstory but are representative. Camera angles are every which way; the world of war is upside down. This is not a historic documentation of the events of May/June 1940 when the largest evacuation in military history took place during the conflict between the Allies and Nazi Germany. Nor is the enemy named in terms other than 'the enemy'. They are invisible - except for the results of their actions. There is no emotional manipulation - dramatic or musical; just the claustrophobic experience and a glimpse into humanity under fire.
The ensemble cast is excellent; it is probably no coincidence that there is sameness to the physicality of many of the young men embroiled in the action at Dunkirk, with their dark hair and youthful faces. Heroism comes in different packages - large and small. We notice them all.
In his feature film debut, Fionn Whithead is our eyes and ears on the land. There are other debuts: pop star Harry Styles and Tom Glynn Carney. Mark Rylance's skipper brings pathos; Cillian Murphy adds a different element. The story strand involving Barry Keoghan as a simple lad who has never done anything of note, resonates. Tom Hardy's face is mostly hidden: it is only his expression-filled eyes that we see through a mask as he pilots a Spitfire. They convey much. We are in the cockpit tailing 'the enemy' high above the vast expanse of water below, that separates the 400,000 men stranded on the beach at Dunkirk from 'home'. The salute made by Kenneth Branagh's Commander is telling.
Nolan is the star of this explosive mood piece that soars on the wings of its visuals and sound and makes it truly a visceral experience.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With its focus firmly and tightly on the young soldiers trapped on the beach at Dunkirk, there is no time for setting the scene or cutting away to Whitehall, or to establish characters. We may be sitting in the cinema, but Christopher Nolan's film aims to take us there by our senses; to be immersive and visceral. He has briefed composer Hans Zimmer along those lines, and Zimmer delivers an immersive cacophonous score, an ominous, industrial-sized and toned soundscape. Indeed, it is the primary sound in the film, often masking dialogue, blending with explosions and gunfire, screams of the wounded and the sound of planes and ships. For some (including me), this is not so much distinctive as distracting. It's brave, of the Yes, Minister kind.
The sound also guides the action, as we see the three-tiered structure of the film: the beach, with its long jetty over the shallows, the sea with its ships & boats and the air with the Spitfires, like the one piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy), defending the evacuation from the German planes.
Performances can only be judged by the expressions of the men, both those who set out from England to help and those on the beach waiting to be evacuated. The film is not about performances but the chaos and noise of war. In that respect, it succeeds. Notable is one sequence involving a beached ship where some of the soldiers seek refuge while waiting to be rescued. It becomes less a refuge and more a target for unknown and unseen guns shooting holes in its hull. While this works to emphasise the fog of war, it leaves unanswered the question of what is happening; it doesn't make any sense.
Nolan's dedication to deliver an authentic experience is commendable and is displayed in the attention to detail, from the perfectly recreated costumes to the boats and the actual beach at Dunkirk. But ... there shouldn't be a but.
For all its taut direction and editing, its thunderous sound and its historic origins, the film doesn't quite move us as deeply and as often as we expect. Perhaps Nolan is trying too hard to construct the mood with the tools at his command.
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CAST: Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles, Tom Glynn-Carney
PRODUCER: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
SCRIPT: Christopher Nolan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hoyte Van Hoytema
EDITOR: Lee Smith
MUSIC: Hans Zimmer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Nathan Crowley
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 20, 2017