Director: – Christopher Nolan
Genre: – War, Drama
Cast: – Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh
So, before I begin let me just say – Christopher Nolan is my favourite filmmaker. I rarely watch the same movies twice but I have watched all his movies at least twice except Momento. And if you feel my review is biased it most likely is and hope you feel the same amazement after reading as I do.
Dunkirk is the new genre-defining film from Christopher Nolan after Interstellar (which was amazing as well.) Dunkirk is based on a real – life incident during World War 2 in the French town of Dunkirk where the French are almost defeated and the allied troops are sent in to help them. But they too are no good as the Germans have very well advanced through the French territory. The remaining 400,000 troops are now cornered at the beach and are waiting to be rescued. But the beach is too shallow for armed battleships to come rescue them and not enough shallow boats to pick up so many soldiers. So, the British government requisitions civilian boats to head to Dunkirk to pick up their soldiers from across the channel.
The plot of the movie is more or less based on the real incident that happened on the beach of Dunkirk with a bit of Christopher Nolan’s magic imbued in it.
So, first let’s talk about the cast and then about the filmmaking:-
1. Mark Rylance plays Mr Dawson – a civilian elder who takes his boat across the channel to rescue soldiers. The usual folks had to surrender the boat to the government which would then be commandeered by Navy personnel who would do the rescue job. Mark Rylance has been a really great performer in almost all movies I have seen him – Bridge of Spies if you can remember. He plays a seasoned elderly man who understands the plight the soldiers are going and doesn’t push them too hard (there are instances in the film that portrays his this attribute) but also feels he is morally obliged to serve his country and humanity by preventing the slaughtering of the people who have strapped on boots to fight a war that has nothing to do with them. You see his knowledge and wisdom on the field because of his experiences maybe because he was in the army or because his elder son used to be there. His calm composure and subtle hints of his determination just stole the show.
2. Tom Glynn – Carney plays Peter, the son of Mr Dawson who is more or less a kid and has that upbeat and condescending feel about the war that every teenager or passerby has of, “Why do we fight wars?” But as the movie progresses you do see he matures up. Faced with the horror of the war and seeing how it has affected the soldiers he softens up a bit. He lies to Cillian Murphy – a soldier who kills Barry Keoghan by throwing him down the stairs on the deck. Usually, he would have gotten a beating but Peter understood the trauma he was undergoing and didn’t want another accident scarring his conscience. I didn’t think much of him throughout the movie but such an act really surprised me.
3. Cillian Murphy plays a haunted soldier who is scarred by the war he has fled due to unsurmountable odds. He is a very skilled actor and by the looks of his casting order must be in Nolan’s favourites and his role clearly explains why.
4. Talking of Nolan’s favourites we have Tom Hardy – probably at the top of the list. He plays Farrier – a British pilot operating a Spitfire jet that is providing air cover along the retreating process because the Germans are continuously sending bombers to sink the ships. He makes very daring stunts and captivates the audience in his dogfights – the full movie he is only in the cockpit of the film. He deserved the applause as he was a saviour who overlooked them in the sky and had only dialogues that were there to communicate with his squadron members. He makes daring saves, shows exactly how pilots in the war fought, the fuel capacity and flight time were all precariously displayed and the soldiers conscience of “Fight or Flight” (pun intended) was starkly mentioned because if he wanted he could have bolted but chose to stay and fight so that the rest of them could make it back.
5. Harry Styles plays Alex another soldier on the beach. And talking about wild card cast, this person was an absolute shock. For the first half, I wondered why he was cast – “An okay singer playing a soldier? Has Nolan lost his mind?” But he did pull off a good performance in the second half – not a good performance but how much you can expect from him without being a disappointment.
6. Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy who was truly the star of the show and had probably the most screen time amongst all his co-stars. His role was more of a silent and emotional one rather than a complex and impactful one. His role was in the sense of a young soldier probably his first battle. He wants to survive and you can see in his character’s struggle. You see the desperation truly in his eyes, the clever and sneaky tricks he pulls off to get to a boat that will pull him out of the beach etc. Like in one instance, he acts like the survivor of a ship by pretending he was in the water so that he doesn’t have to stand in a queue and get left behind.
7. Aneurin Bernard plays Gibson – a stolen identity of a British soldier who dies on the beach. He brings the French part to the movie where the British are selfish in the evacuation process. Allowing only British troops on British ships because they were here because of the French and it was all their fault. Gibson and Tommy together with Harry Styles are the ones on the beach for most of the movie and the survival part is shown to some degree from their perspective.
8. Keneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton – the Naval commander who is heading the British Evacuation through the sea. You can see from his entry into the frame that he has seen a lot of stuff in his tenure during the war. He works systematically for a while but then becomes a normal man when most of his tactics fail acting on intuition and gut. Few of such notable instance were
• When he tells James D’ Arcy who also plays a marvellous role as Colonel Winnant, “that even though you can see the destroyers, seeing and reaching are not the same. Especially not on this beach.”
• He lands on the beach and tells Churchill wants 30,000 troops evacuated but finds out there are 400,000 soldiers here which shocks him.
Commander Bolton: You can practically see it from here.
Captain Winnant: What?
Commander Bolton: Home.
9. There were a lot of other characters who did splendid jobs and I don’t have time to list what I liked about them but you’ll see my point once you watch or hopefully can relate if you already have.
Now, let’s talk about the filmmaking – my favourite part. Dunkirk has a time element apart from the war. You have one week back, one day back and one hour back. These are perspectives from land – the mole (the name of the dock), the story from the sea and the story from the air respectively.
The incident was devastating as usual. For after all it is a war and wars are devastating – it kills a lot of people and traumatises the ones that survived it, affects finances and horrifies any accounts of its events. The rich wage wars and the poor fight it almost all the time. But the way it was portrayed is what sets it apart from the others. My favourite before this was Hacksaw Ridge and this just took its place. And I’ll explain why.
The movie was shot mostly on IMAX cameras setting a golden standard for filmmaking and it was shot to look as real as possible. Tom Hardy’s Spitfire was an actual Spitfire and not some rookie remake. It had a camera inside it (IMAX cameras are immensely expensive.) I hope you watched it in a theatre because only there can you realise that the sound effects were as realistic as possible to a plane flying overhead. The tension of an evacuation was totally authentic because that’s how the actual battle was. You didn’t know which boat made it through and which one didn’t. Because most accounts tell of how the event happened and don’t actually go deep into how the minutes passed by is where Christopher Nolan inserted his manipulated and recreated events to showcase the devastating effects of the incident (he has done this before in Interstellar’s Black Hole and Inception’s Dreamscapes). The cast reinforces his magic with their superb acting. The lack of dialogues actually played a very important role in portraying just how intense the war was. You don’t actually talk to people in a battle because you are way too busy soiling your pants from fear or anticipating what you’ll do the next moment and this was infinitely worse because dying suddenly by a bullet is far better than being starved and picked up one by one (it reminds me of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia just that the soldiers could desert their posts because they had place to run but here they didn’t). If you want to feel what they did, imagine there is a riot going on in the city and you are at home with an empty fridge and no possible way to resupply, that is a toned down version of what happened there.
You see elements of Nolan’s magic every now and then – such as at the start of the movie you see taunting flyers fall from the sky showing a map that the German army was closing in on the beach and had them cornered. Did the Germans actually do that? I doubt it but did it set the tone of the movie? Oh yes, it definitely did. Every gun shot you hear feels way too real to ignore. The stranger sitting next to me was flinching every time a bullet was shot. That is how captivating the movie was. There were other parts of the movie where people would head to a ship and think they were safe but only to realise a moment later the ship was torpedoed and drowning, only to head back to find another boat. All sense of humanity of humility was lost as people were ready to kick and kill to get a place on any boat that could get them to the other side. And then came all the civilian boats that had volunteering people on the helm or navy folks who had risked death and come to rescue the soldiers. The Commander at the dock was almost in tears and to be honest so were most of the people in the theatre.
You see a lot of situations through the eyes of the main characters such as Dawson or Farrier where they take selfless actions to save a lot of people not caring how or where they end up. The machinery and equipment used in the Spitfire and the authenticity of bombs used were all picture perfect and really locked in the spirit of the war to give you a very impactful scenario of desperation and true heroism of the civilian and the war enrolled heroes.
The end lays the speech of Winston Churchill as he quotes this devastating incident as a morale boost rather than morale degrader to fight the upcoming war of Britain as this incident was at the time when Hitler was at the peak of his victories and the British weren’t as engaged in the war as they were in the following years.
The only few things, I felt could have been done better was take into consideration the losses in arms and ammunitions the army faced but I guess this movie was about the human element rather than the economic factor of that retreat. Also, I felt the Germans weren’t as involved because they sent not as many bombers to blow up the boats and neither did the British send their jets to fend off many bombers considering the number of troops and planes both sides had.
All in all, it was a masterpiece in the war genre. Yes, it had every predictable twist and turn because history books tell every inch of it but to make the people feel what the soldiers actually went through was something that yearned Christopher Nolan’s intervention. Well seems like in a few more masterpieces, Christopher Nolan’s bucket list will have no more genres to redefine!
My Rating: – Astounding Masterpiece (Obviously)