Dunkirk (2017) Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy. IMDB says: “Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.”

The mole, the sea, the sky. These are the three settings surrounding the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is among the British and French soldiers stranded on the beach. They wait like sitting ducks for ships to come rescue them along the mole, a fragile pier, as Germans attack them from the air and surround them on the ground. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is among those English small vessel owners who were called to help the rescue effort. He’s committed to the cause, even when he comes across a shell-shocked soldier stranded at sea (Cillian Murphy) who begs him not to continue. In the sky, two Royal Air Force pilots, Cowden (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), take down enemy planes that are heading to attack soldiers awaiting evacuation.

The well-known names blend into the cast of mostly unknowns, even Harry Styles who’s become a conversation point surrounding the film’s release. The acting is very naturalistic with lines that mostly regard the action before them. Hardy hardly says a word that isn’t technical, and Murphy doesn’t even get a name. There is barely any dialogue, and certainly no elaborate back stories or tales from home. Everyone is too busy trying to survive. There’s a very visceral fear and intensity ingrained into every scene and on each character’s face.

Since its Christopher Nolan you can expect the incredible direction and visuals that have become his dependable trademark. The practical effects are impressive with an obvious dedication to craft a realistic depiction. You really feel in the center of action the whole time. It reminded me a bit of Gravity in that way, where you never get a break. You follow characters closely through each war-is-hell scenario. It feels very intimate, but at the same time the scope is incredible and the views from the sky and sea are fantastic. Everything pairs wonderfully with an intense Hans Zimmer score.

Nolan can be all over the place with his writing. Memento is so tightly scripted, where every part is necessary. Interstellar is pretty much the opposite – hugely expansive, to the point of feeling bloated depending on who you ask. Dunkirk is such a 180 turn from Nolan’s last screenplay that it’s almost a shock. You won’t find any eloquent speeches, grand philosophizing, or mind-bending turns. The dialogue is starkly reigned in, with the plotting of the screenplay doing most of the work. His tendency to play with time is applied in an interesting way that does remind you that this is Nolan. It won’t be that straightforward.

A complaint with Dunkirk I can understand is it’s almost lacking a dramatic emotional core we’re accustomed to seeing in not only the war genre, but in most historical depictions. This could be a turn off and leave an empty feeling. For the most part though, this film strays from that and many other common tropes for a more documentary feel. There’s certainly an element of patriotism, but it’s not pounded into your head. Germans are kept on the periphery, never seen closely and referred to solely as “the enemy”. It’s brutal and filled with death, but the focus is not on the bloody carnage. The limp bodies scattering the beach are disturbing enough.

Nolan strips Dunkirk back to its essential elements. That’s what makes it so singular and interesting.


Dunkirk is currently in theaters.