Film Review: 'Dunkirk'

(Warner Bros.)

(Warner Bros.)


When Christopher Nolan gets involved in a story, it's almost guaranteed to be told in an innovative way. Look no further than Memento and Inception; two films that turned traditional narrative progression on their heads to become unique and compelling pieces of cinema. Although unconventional, their structures amplified their stories.

Even so, Nolan can effectively direct straight-shooters like his Batman trilogy and, to an extent, Interstellar. While only The Dark Knight is considered among Nolan's finest, they nonetheless prove he's as capable of using a traditional story structure as an unorthodox one. You have to know the rules to be able to break them.

So when it came to his latest brainchild in Dunkirk, it perhaps would have been more effective to stick with tradition. Nolan uses the trinity of waging wars by land, sea, and air to frame his retelling of the rescue of over 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France during the Second World War. Each terrain gets its own chunk of the film, and we regularly jump between them until all three plot lines coalesce by the film's end.

(Warner Bros.)

(Warner Bros.)

Although it's creative, when it comes to depicting these true-to-life events, the effect is disorienting to where it disservices the characters that populate it. Our land protagonist is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the sole survivor of a surprise attack by German soldiers who then makes a break for it to the Dunkirk beaches. Our sea protagonist is boating captain Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who, along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), are one of many civilian boats headed to Dunkirk for the rescue mission. In the air, there's British pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) engaged in a one-hour dogfight with German fighter planes that seek to decimate the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers. 

Nothing wrong with non-linear storytelling as long as the characters are relatable and the structure services the story. But in the case of Dunkirk, the structure hampers our ability to get to know these characters and establish a thread of emotion. We never spend too long with Tommy, Mr. Dawson, or Peter to get to know them, and once we do, our experience is more akin to being alongside them as opposed to understanding them.

This is not a fault of the actors' ability to emote (Rylance is an Oscar winner for 2015's Bridge of Spies), but rather a consequence of Nolan's priorities as a director for this film. Dunkirk is a marvel of directing and cinematography, with incredible set design and visual effects, as well as stunningly framed shots from ravaged landscapes to grittily detailed close-ups. The visual and aural experience of the film (the sound design is incredible as well) makes for a one-of-a-kind theater trip.

(Warner Bros.)

(Warner Bros.)

But without placing ourselves in the characters' shoes, the film is more like a thrill ride; we feel like we're at Dunkirk - an impressive cinematic feat in its own right - but our hearts aren't in it. Instead, Nolan chomps at the bit to get back in the air for some appropriately exciting aerial scenes. As a result, in the times when we expect to swell with pride and joy at the story's emotional highs, we are instead just passive observers.

Nolan loves to make his movies somewhat puzzle-like, as if to give the brain something to chew on during the film. While it's a storytelling strategy he's successful with, it doesn't have the same effect when applied to a war story that inspired a country to keep fighting and continues to inspire today. Because of that, the humanity of the story is missing in spite of its technical and directorial achievements. Although these achievements are reason enough to enjoy the film, when it came to matters of the heart and of the mind, I wish Nolan went with the former.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Starring Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, and Mark Rylance.


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