Dunkirk is something of an anomaly. It is director Christopher Nolan’s first film based on historical events and goes against many of the director’s tendencies. Clocking in 106 minutes, it is his shortest directorial effort since Memento in 2000. Unlike much of Nolan’s work, the film also contains very little dialogue.
It’s also an anomaly in the war film genre. The film focuses on the evacuation from the beaches itself rather than the battles surrounding it (as the 1958 film of the same name does). The film switches perspectives from the land, sea and air all over varying spans of time; a week, day and hour respectively with the timelines converging toward the end of the movie.
While this could have been a choice that confused viewers, it ends up being very easy to follow. At the beginning of the film, title cards clearly delineate which perspective is which and the film goes on its way. It also bodes well for the film’s suspense; it’s easy to see where the sea and air timelines will converge plot-wise, but the one week timeline on land leaves the audience guessing as to where those characters will end up at the end of the movie and how they get there.
The perspective from the sea is easily the strongest of the three. It follows one of the many “small boats,” civilian craft commissioned by the British Navy to carry soldiers from Dunkirk to Britain. This particular boat is captained and crewed by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan). They receive the most direct characterization in the film and are at the center of the film’s most talkative parts. It also helps that they have arguably the best performances of the film.
That’s not to say the other characters in the film aren’t effectively fleshed out. The actors, especially those on land, make the best use of the limited dialogue they have. Many other films might have bogged down the film with the backstory of each and every character the audience meets. Dunkirk instead saves most of it for the characters on the sea and in the air. The only time a character on land gets a true backstory, it’s because he is not who he seems.
This makes sense. The film states that there are 400,000 men on the beaches at Dunkirk. They have one goal: get home. It doesn’t matter how or why. It gets needs to get done. This could have backfired with poor performances, but it doesn’t. The cast on land holds together and pulls it off. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles in particular bring characters to life that make the audience care about them in that moment. They are not soldiers on the field of battle. They are scared men waiting to cross the English Channel.
Outside of the dogfights involving Tom Hardy’s character, there aren’t that many battle scenes in the film. Most of what would qualify as battle scenes in the film are simply the Germans picking off the men on the beach through bombing runs. The film plays out more like a psychological horror film or a suspense thriller than a war film. The enemy is not always there. When they are, they strike fast and disappear just as quickly.
Special attention must be paid to Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film looks best in IMAX. However, it has a particular aesthetic that should look great in any format. The colors are stark and pop off the screen. Objects and actors are well defined with little motion blur. At times it was immediately reminiscent of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s best work from the period or photojournalist Dorothea Lange’s work.
That being said, the film falls prey to one of Nolan’s worst tendencies. The dialogue is mixed very low in the audio. It’s a pock mark on what is otherwise a stellar sound design and a distraction from the film itself. However, it’s not big enough to stop Dunkirk from being great.