Skip to content

Movie Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is among the finest tributes to those that waited on that beach, to those that gave their lives to keep them safe, and to those who risked everything to rescue them
Aisle Seat, Rob Slack


Directed by Christopher Nolan

In Theatres

"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." 

May, 1940. Four hundred thousand soldiers wait on a beach in northern France. Nearly half a million boys and men, mostly boys. Boys barely able to shave, boys with bad skin and dreams and delusions and fantasies about how their lives will play out. Nearly half a million soldiers wait for rescue on a beach on the edge of a continent. The enemy has them surrounded, attacking from the air and from land. Their only way off of the beach is an eight foot wide seawall known as The Mole. Most of the naval and air support has been pulled away from the area, as Britain begins preparing for a German invasion. And so it was that beginning on the 26th of May, 1940, and continuing for nine days, nearly four hundred thousand soldiers were rescued by all manner of civilian fishing boats, pleasure boats, car ferries, speedboats, and motor lifeboats. 

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is among the finest tributes to those that waited on that beach, to those that gave their lives to keep them safe, and to those who risked everything to rescue them. Dunkirk is also a masterpiece, brilliant and beautiful. But Dunkirk is not a war film, don't go expecting brave, handsome, young men with machine guns fighting the enemy while we cut to old men in the admiralty standing over maps and stroking their chins sombrely. Don't go expecting John Wayne hero shots and girls and family at home waiting for news of the young heroes. And don't expect a story with a clear beginning, middle and ending. Instead, Dunkirk is a film about a moment in time during a war, during one of the moments that defines modern Britain. 

But Dunkirk isn't as simple as that. It is about a particular moment but being a Nolan film it can never be that easy. Outside of his Batman trilogy, Nolan has always favoured disjointed story telling, an almost experimental non-linear way to solve a story-telling problem. Memento is disjointed and told from multiple time frames to put the audience into the broken brain of its protagonist. The Prestige is like the greatest magic trick ever put to film, moving back and forth through time and always distracting us the way the best magicians distract us from what is really happening. Inception turns itself inside out, twisting what could have been a straight heist film into something else altogether about loss and grief. Interstellar is a story about fatherhood disguised as science fiction. In each of these films we see events from multiple points of view, at different times throughout the story until we know the whole story. It is his great strength, this ability to make these blockbuster art films, to take the audience on an unexpected journey.

Dunkirk is told from three perspectives and from three time frames. The Mole, the Dunkirk beach, takes place over a week. The Sea, the story of one of the Little Boats that came to aid the evacuation, takes place over a day. The Air, the story of the Air Force support over the English Channel, takes place over an hour. The reasons for this are all logical and genius and completely simple - the evacuation took nine days, it takes about a day for small boats to cross the Channel, Spitfires could hold roughly an hour of fuel. On the beach we are with Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton and his officers as they try to keep from surrendering, we also follow Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, as they and other young soldiers try to survive the evacuation. On the water we are in the Moonstone with Mark Rylance, his son, and a young family friend. In the air we are in the Spitfire cockpits of Tom Hardy's Farrier and Jack Lowden's Collins. It is an incredible and genius way to tell such a complicated story, a story with so many moving parts that it would have overwhelmed most filmmakers. The structure of the film allows us to see events from multiple perspectives, until we know the whole story, as the time lines begin to overlap. 

Christopher Nolan has taken a story, the evacuation of 338,226 from a beach in northern Europe and, by focusing on these small stories, these small human stories, has found a way to take Dunkirk out of the dry history textbooks it has lived in for decades. Look at that number, 338,226. That is a number most of us cannot fathom. A number that huge loses all human connection, all faces are lost. It is a statistic. But by digging deep into those numbers to find three stories, to find a way to tell the stories of eleven characters, Nolan has found a way to make an emotional and human story out of something overwhelming in scope. 

One of the complaints about any Nolan film is the amount of exposition he dumps on the audience. In Memento it makes sense with a lead character never remembering if he told his story before. But, and I say this with a deep love and respect for the film, I swear a good hour of Inception is just exposition. Dunkirk however has little dialogue, and none of it is exposition. And much of what is there is lost in the sound of crashing waves or Spitfire engines or artillery fire. There is no time for the audience to have things explained to them, no time for hand holding. There is only the story that is being told. Want to know more? Google the evacuation of Dunkirk. Dunkirk the movie has no time for that. I think Tom Hardy has maybe ten lines in the whole movie. For Christopher Nolan, who rarely lets silence just be in his films, it is shocking and refreshing how streamlined and trim Dunkirk is. 

Everything in Dunkirk is brilliant, every beat, every moment, every actor's choice, every frame. The film looks amazing, with different tones for each of the three settings, with the use of practical effects and real objects instead of CGI creations. The score is among Hans Zimmer's best work. Every actor is just brilliant. The young soldiers on the beach are scared kids, just trying to get home. Mark Rylance's Mr. Dawson is going to do what's right, no matter the cost. The RAF pilots are restricted as to how much help they can really be, with their limited flight time and with the tools they have at hand. Dunkirk is incredibly moving and emotional, but is never manipulative, there is never a false moment. Like I wrote above, Dunkirk is among the finest tributes to everyone that was impacted by the events of May, 1940. And The Prestige is now Christopher Nolan's second best film.

2017 has been a ridiculous year for film, the amount of really great stories that have hit the big screens is getting ridiculous. Get Out and Split have rewritten the rules regarding January/February releases. The summer season started two months early with Logan. And here we are in July and I believe I have seen the Best Picture winner. Is it too early to talk Oscars? Not in 2017 it isn't.