Dunkirk’s artistic ambitions match its harrowing true story in one of the best movies of the year

By Ryen Thomas

July 22, 2017

In the midst of a summer full of super heroes and reboots is Dunkirk, a World War II thriller depicting the hair-raising true story of Allied Soldiers being evacuated from the beach near France, while surrounded by Nazis who’re ready to capture and annihilate them.

Christopher Nolan follows up years of Batman and abstract films about dreams and space, with a wondrously original film that’s grounded and works like a hearty meal prepared by a master chef.

(L-R) Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

With its unusual story structure as the main ingredient, Dunkirk never attempts to explain how it narratively works. We’re thrown into the pressure cooker following three vastly different perspectives set on land, air and sea. Because we swiftly cut between those perspectives and meet multiple characters we can’t instantly attach to, the film feels disorienting at first, making it difficult to to know what point of timeline we’re in.

Audience-Pleasing 101 would have us believe that a film with all the elements above should lead to a disaster. How can viewers connect to a film if they can’t easily identify its characters or understand their motivations?

However it’s not long into the movie that the director’s purpose comes forward. Dunkirk isn’t about individuals, but the overall experience in and of itself. Nolan wants to keep us disoriented like an actual soldier stuck in the trenches. This creates a first person perspective that forces us to care about the overall event and experience of survival. If we survive this experience, then there’ll be time to slow down and discern what’s what.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Dunkirk has a well known ensemble, but doesn’t flaunt them. Tom Hardy plays a spitfire pilot with the world on his shoulders, yet his face remains hidden behind a mask. Cillian Murphy is a shivering soldier. We never learn his actual name, but the constant look on his face tells us he’s been through hell. Kenneth Branagh towers for most of the time as Commander Bolton. Most of our clues as to what’s going on come from his reaction to the madness. Mark Rylance, who plays a mariner, works to tell us who is and who is not the enemy, providing the civilian’s perspective. Aneurin Barnard, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, (the unrecognizable singer from the boyband, One Direction) rounds out the cast, providing the experience of the soldiers on the ground.

Like a constant ticking clock, Hans Zimmer’s score overlaps the different perspectives. It’s rhythm intensifies the drama with few moments to rest and leaves us on edge as we count down to the next hellish moment that hits out of nowhere.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

When it does hit the fan, Nolan manages to keep the horror in a bloodless PG-13 film with hauntingly meticulously crafted staging and visuals fueled by practical effects and little if any noticeable CGI. Like any great film directed by a master, the visuals tells the story and allow plenty to the imagination.

It’s what we don’t see in the film that scares and engages us most. Where and who is the enemy and will they come from the shadows? Will the characters survive? How will they survive?

Coming in at under two hours, Dunkirk is like an epic meal that doesn’t take long to cook. When the chef’s timer eventually sounds, the steam releases the tension inside, but it’s only after the events reach the boiling point and cools, that we are finally allowed to digest and understand the masterful meal Nolan prepared for us. Dunkirk’s artistic ambitions match its harrowing true story. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

Star Rating: 5 out of 5 

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