The plot of Dunkirk revolves around the evacuation of 400,000 Allied soldiers who hailed from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France from the beaches of Dunkirk (France) which was surrounded by the German Army during the initial stages of the World War II.
There is an oft-repeated sentiment amongst filmgoers that the scale and scope of, and the sheer mass of humanity involved in, World War II could never be fully captured in one single film. Hence we are given films that deal with specific events during the course of the war, like Saving Private Ryan, The Pianist, Hacksaw Ridge and alternative history piece Inglorious Basterds
. A common theme to all of these is that, in addition to dealing with specific battles and moments from the war, they help the audience empathize with the armed forces by giving them a protagonist or a band of soldiers/mercenaries to root for. With Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan flips this narrative on its head.
The film makes an audacious attempt at telling the audience the story of all 400,000 soldiers by weaving the horrors on the beaches of Dunkirk into a narrative with no discernable main character. This is a story about that homogenous mass of soldiers in the background who act as cannon fodder in the war films that have a big named leading man. There are actors who act as mere representatives for the men on the beaches, in the sea and in the air, but none of these men is anointed the white knight of the battle at large.
The film is non-saccharine, unflinching, unsentimental and uncompromising, and told with a deft yet wholly objective touch. It addresses the universal themes of pain, suffering, doubts, ethical quandaries, the insignificance of human life and ironically the lives of real men who are nothing more than specs in this war for the soul of the world itself. The actors themselves refuse to be larger than life as they know that the war they are a part of is at present all-consuming. The excellent performances put forth by this exquisite ensemble are a testament to their commitment as they put substance before stardom.
However, through all these moments of thematic integrity (neither the Axis nor the Allied soldiers are ever painted in a bad light) and unquestionable confidence in craft, Dunkirk can't help but stumble, ever so slightly, owing to its creative and narrative choices. The non-linear, almost Inception
-esque, narrative style of the film does not translate to great effect when the story of a battle is being articulated.
Indeed, with a single moment being covered from four different perspectives, the film misses out on having a truly compelling ending. Men on the land, sea and air are in specific dangers, and we as audiences know that because of the intensive spatial awareness the film offers, but the film loses out on benefiting from having one single sweeping end that encompasses all the aspects of the last hurrah.
Secondly, while the lack of a main character may not bother some who may feel that the story and theme work well under this constraint the film sets for itself, it might prove a stiff task for all those members of the audience who might not find a point to latch on to or have an individual to care about.
While these work against the film to a certain degree, they do not take away from the cinematic achievement that is Dunkirk. The skill on display is undeniable and incomparable. The man behind the camera is in complete control of his craft, and refuses to accept nothing lesser than the lofty standards he has set for himself and for his fellow artists.
The performances, needless to say, are sophisticated. Tom Hardy's fighter pilot who attempts to destroy enemy aircrafts before they barrage soldiers and ships, Mark Rylance's civilian on the treacherous waters who attempts to help with the evacuation, and the trio of soldiers on the ground who try their damndest to survive amidst the shelling and dwindling time and resources, all perform their roles with aplomb even despite the limited dialogue and screen time their plights are afforded. All the acclaimed actors in the ensemble, that also includes such names as Kenneth Branagh and pop star Harry Styles, never take away from the film feeling like a grounded story of soldiers virtually abandoned in the line of fire.
You need not go long into the film to experience the sublime technical finesse. The first establishing shot and the first volley of gunfire pop out of screen and boom out of the sound system within the first minute, and invite you into a film brimming with nuanced cinematography and pulsating composition. The movie is set almost fully in a war zone, and the craftsmen behind the camera get you to experience every single phobia you have had about war. The nightmare-inducing fears of heights, fire, drowning, confinement, death (which can come from anywhere) and so on are evoked in you viscerally by the usual suspects Hoyte van Hoytema and Hans Zimmer, who give the film jaw-dropping imagery, haunting music and entrancing sound design.
Christopher Nolan is one of the very few directors who combine auteuristic and blockbuster sensibilities in almost every one of their films. His successes with The Dark Knight Trilogy
, Inception and Interstellar
(however lukewarm the reception for it was) have earned him a carte blanche from Warner Bros to conduct his experiments with filmmaking and storytelling. And this time he's made the most anti-Nolan film so far, and it is all the better for it. His usual hallmarks/pitfalls are nowhere to be found. There is no exposition dump, there are no searing dialogues about the human condition, and the film is not too long. There are restraint, craft, guile, intelligence, integrity and spine-chilling intensity, and in sum, a truly riveting experience on offer. Don't miss this one.