“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 that outcome as well, but it’s the journey of how 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. 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 here. 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. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, BFG) impresses again as Mr. Dawson, 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 heroic performance.
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).
Nolan also found a way to get his frequent cast member Michael Caine into the film through the radio communications.
The educational and historical elements in the film lay thick, but do not require much effort to understand. For example, audience 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 details (e.g. warm water temperature, etc.) in their actions and dialogue.
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 (e.g. 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.
Filmmakers achieve a work almost as miraculous as the depicted event that was a key turning point in World War II. Dunkirk was mainly shot in IMAX format and this film is the third this decade shot in 70MM. Cinematography duties are well handled by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) and his crew who used 60-pound handheld IMAX cameras for many filming sequences.
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.
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).
This 106-minute film comes highly recommended (**** out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language. Dunkirk was an international co-production among the United States, United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands and is also playing in IMAX theaters.
Copyright © Michael Siebenaler