Movie Review: Dunkirk

-Zenia Zuraiq, I Year B.Sc Physics

Rating: 4.5/5

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Lee Armstrong, James Bloor, Harry Styles
Running Time: 1h 46m
Genres: Action, Drama, History, War


A Christopher Nolan film commands a certain degree of expectation and respect, and his latest war drama, Dunkirk does not let these expectations down. Nolan sure is no stranger to non-linear narratives, 2010’s Inception being the most obvious example, and his latest, Dunkirk, is no stranger to this treatment. With its three separate stories, on three different elements (land, sea and air).

The movie’s main and only focus is on World War II’s historic Dunkirk Evacuation, from the beaches and harbour of the city of Dunkirk, in the north of France. It is a source of British pride, a symbol of people coming together, even being referred to as “The Miracle of Dunkirk”.

The first of the three parallel threads of the movie – the story on land, The Mole –  is told over the course of a week, and tells us of the impatience of the 400,000 men stranded; their desperation of wanting to get home, feeling it so close and yet so far. Along with them, we see Kenneth Branagh’s imposing naval commander and James D’Arcy’s army colonel, as they eye the skies for the enemy, providing us, the audience with context, bringing Dunkirk back slightly, from totally isolated back to its roots in the war.

The second story, a tale told on sea, taking place over a day, is perhaps the more conventional of the three – showing us the human side of Dunkirk in Mark Rylance as one of the civilian English sailors diving into the rescue effort, by way of a pleasure craft called Moonstone, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a local boy eager to take part in something big (Barry Keoghan).

The third tale, taking place in a single hour is perhaps the one that offers us some of the most powerful visuals of the movie. Dunkirk soars here, pardon the pun, to its greatest heights with a story of Tom Hardy as a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, engaged in a dogfight with the German Messerschmitts. There is a beautifully filmed contrast here between close-up shots of Hardy in the plane and the wide establishing shots we see of the outside.

If you come to this movie expecting a traditional protagonist and a focused plot, look for another movie. If you come to this movie expecting the excessive violence and gore that has been associated with the others of its genre, don’t bother.

In a time of heavy exposition and star-jammed cinema, Dunkirk stands apart in its minimalist dialogue and its lack of blood soaked action. We do not need free flowing blood to appreciate the extent of the war. Instead, the war’s reach is shown in more subtle ways – downgraded to merely a background character; a looming presence that leaves the film with a constant unsteadiness. The only protagonist here is Dunkirk, carrying with her the weight of 400,000 people waiting to get out of there. It is in this getting out that we join in – we watch as three stories connect with this one theme – getting out. The film ends much like it begins – with little context to what has happened outside of the brief one and a half hours or so of its runtime.

Although the film has been praised for its general historical accuracy, some dramatization of the elements for the sake of cinema is present.
Dunkirk, like all Nolan films, is beautifully shot.

Personally however, more than the gorgeous visuals, what struck me was the film’s score. It quite literally set the tone of the film – Hans Zimmer’s beautiful creations were in constant crescendo, ascending and ascending but never really reaching anywhere. The effect of this incomplete score was chilling – and much of the film’s urgency was beautifully portrayed by the same.

Ultimately, Dunkirk tells the story of human triumph – and what it has brought along with it is also a triumph in film-making. A film that is both grand and subtle, that is both scaled down and carefully crafted, Dunkirk is many things. Its short duration is jam-packed with details, and this might make it hard to follow. Another bone I have to pick with Dunkirk is probably its complete lack of women, and although this can be explained away as a product of a time where women were seldom seen or heard, I personally believe the female voice could’ve been explored a little more. However, these are only small flaws and do not subtract from the overall experience of what is rightly being called, one of the greatest war films of all time.

Don’t miss this movie.


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