Note: Viewed in 70mm Format
Christopher Nolan is one of the most intriguing filmmakers of our time. One of the greatest I dare say. A look through his filmography uncovers some of the most inventive, brilliant movies ever made. One consistent criticism of Nolan however, from fans and detractors alike, is that his films lack an emotional attachment. While I somewhat disagree with that point, especially for The Prestige, it is an argument that holds undeniable weight in a movie like Interstellar. While I very much enjoy that movie, the fact it was initially tailor made for Steven Spielberg (ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) lingers throughout the movie, with an emotional connection solely through Matthew McConaughey’s (Amistad, Dallas Buyer’s Club) incredible acting, not so much the material McConaughey was provided.
It seems only fitting a war movie about one of the most inherently emotional events designed with the utmost efficiency be directed by Nolan. Nolan delivers that movie, about the evacuation of 400,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of the French town of Dunkirk. At that point in the war, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg had fallen to Nazi tyranny. Britain’s woefully underprepared armed forces combined with the equally unprepared French had done little to halt the Nazi aggression. With this latest retreat, it was an open secret that it was only a matter of time before France fell. Britain needed her army back to prepare for the inevitable Nazi attack.
The story is divided between three perspectives in Nolan’s signature non-linear storytelling. On the land we see British soldiers, young men no older than 18 or 20 or so, desperately wanting to make it home as they wait for a week. On the sea, we follow a civilian ship, captained by Mark Rylance’s (Hearts of Fire, Bridge of Spies) Mr Dawson, over one day. One of many commandeered by the Royal Navy to help evacuate. Mr Dawson, like many civilian sailors then, does not wait for the sailors to use his ship and sets out himself to help soldiers. In the air, over one hour, we follow Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), but mostly Farrier, as he’s played by Tom Hardy, as they provide air support and take down as many German planes as they can.
Nolan’s choice to use as little dialogue as possible is a bold one, and the movie arrives much better for it. Nolan lets the arresting imagery of desperation and fear, combined with Hans Zimmer’s powerful score, tell the story so as to immerse the audience into the action. The score is loud of course, but unlike Interstellar, where it became so loud it was overbearing in its attempt to imitate being in space, the score works here because of the overwhelming fear on display from the soldiers on the ground.
Nolan’s casting of young adult unknowns in the roles of the ground soldiers is perfect, as if it were well-known, thirty-to-forty-to-fifty-something actors, as Hollywood is so fond of doing, playing teenagers and young adults, that would only distract the audience by making them think, “oh look, it’s so-and-so, and he’s in trouble!” This allows us to put ourselves in the situation of the young men much more seamlessly.
The star power is left to the sea and air segments for Rylance and Hardy respectively. There is one on the land, Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, My Week with Marilyn), who plays a Navy commander serving as a composite of several real-life military officers who coordinated the evacuation. Branagh serves as the character for the audience to know as the man in charge. Branagh continuously provides updates on the status of the operation to a Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), the latter of whom is essentially a stand-in for the audience.
On the seas, Mr Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Mr Dawson’s young employee, George (Barry Keoghan), sail out to rescue soldiers. They encounter a shivering, PTSD-ridden Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Peaky Blinders), who desperately wants to get as far away from Dunkirk as possible. Rylance provides a raw emotional core for the film of the nudging desire to do something, while Murphy contrasts with the skepticism that some civilians could plausibly do anything to help. Your eyes do not deceive you. You read that correctly. Mark Rylance provides a raw emotional core… in a Christopher Nolan movie.
Meanwhile in the skies, Tom Hardy, until the very end of the movie, spends his whole screen-time inside the cockpit of a Spitfire fighter plane, with almost all his face covered except his eyes, eyebrows, and the lower third of his forehead. Hardy plays his pilot with the fierce determination to complete his mission, protect the boys on the ground and sea to buy time to evacuate, shooting every last German plane he sees out of the sky, no matter the risk to himself. Hardy is so expressive with just the limited room and facial areas he is able to utilize that nothing I write here can do justice to the brilliance that is Tom Hardy’s acting talent! All I can do is implore you to go see it. If Dunkirk does not cement Tom Hardy as one of the greatest actors of our time, I do not know what will!
All this and the 70mm format make Dunkirk a must-watch. One of the best war films made, its disturbing beauty will not cease to fascinate film enthusiasts for a long time. Dunkirk is a stunning movie that will leave you pondering the contradictory yet symbiotic relationship of the beauty of cinema and the horror of war.
*Image Source: indiewire.com