This might be the most difficult movie to try to review that I will have this year.
The newest film from director Christopher Nolan is Dunkirk, which tells the true story of how 400,000 British soldiers were stranded at Dunkirk, just across the English Chanel during World War II. I did not know much, if anything about this moment in history, so the movie had the unknown going for it.
There are people who love Nolan more than I do. He is great as a director, but I was not a huge fan of Inception. I thought Interstellar fell apart in the second half of the film. I disliked much of The Dark Knight Rises. Sure, I loved the first two of the Batman trilogy and I like other work that he has had, but I am not opposed to disliking Nolan. I believe there are people/critics who hear the words “Christopher Nolan” and immediately dub the film a masterpiece.
I have heard the term masterpiece bandied around in reference to Dunkirk as well, but I would take an issue with that.
I have not been through a movie like this in my life. I will tell you that I saw Dunkirk in IMAX and the sound was just unbelievable. The problem was the sound was so immersive that I felt as if I had actually been through the war myself. The sounds of the bullets, the airplanes and the bombs rattled my seat and my chest. I actually felt kind of nauseated at times. The spinning sky during some of the aerial fight scenes was also a challenge to watch. I was uncomfortable physically watching Dunkirk, and, despite how the sound effects were remarkably realistic, I think that did take away some of the enjoyment of the film for me.
So I squirmed and tried to ease back during excessive times during the film. Because of my efforts to keep my pretzel down, I was also having problems following what was happening in the movie. I did not realize until later in the movie that the film’s narrative structure was not being followed in a chronological order. Scenes would flash back and forth between night and day and I did not understand what was happening. Now I knew the structure was like this, but, again because I was so intent on how I was physically feeling, I did not realize it until near the end.
Another issue I had with the structure was I did not know any of these characters. This movie was more of a film about an event that had happened, and not about how that event affected people. We had just a bare minimum of character development – going as far as not naming most of the characters we were following. At least, I did not know who we were following and so I had trouble following the time jumps for these people.
The main characters that had some kind of development were on the boat piloted by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance). We got his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend, George (Barry Keoghan). I did feel some connection to these three because I got to know them slightly. Not a lot, mind you, but more than the others.
There was a great cast. Tom Hardy played the heroic airplane pilot. Kenneth Branagh played the British Commander. There is Cillian Murphy who played the pilot who had been shot down first (listed literally on IMDB as the ‘Shivering Soldier’). There are multiple actors playing multiple soldiers who all seemed to look alike to me.
Sure the situations of the film were ones where you simply hope to see the soldiers survive, if I had more of a connection with them, or an understanding of exactly what was happening to them, I would have cared more about what the movie was trying to do. I understand that one of the themes of the movie is how war can be all encompassing and how it can be a true horror, but I wanted to care more about the soldiers than I did. Where as I was physically going through a lot in this movie, I was surprisingly emotionally distant for much of it.
There was very little dialogue in the film, which did not bother me. I can understand that there would not be much dialogue going on during this circumstance and you can tell a story with other techniques than just talking. In fact, I think the dialogue itself was about right for Dunkirk.
Having said that, the film itself was a masterpiece in cinematography and imagery. It was shot beautifully and had an epic feel to it. The effects were stunning and every visual moment (when I could watch it) were breathtaking. It is certainly a marvel with its action scenes. I thought the ending section of the film was well done and was emotionally satisfying. The score was deeply amazing as well.
I am going to say that I respect Nolan’s efforts to make something different than all the other WWII movies out there, and he certainly does that. I just did not enjoy my theater going experience with Dunkirk as a whole, but I think that is part of the idea. As a movie itself, you should see it because the film making is tremendous. Just know that the film is about the event and not the characters.