In May of 1940 in the middle of World War Two, the British and French armies were being pushed to the ocean by oncoming enemy forces. Over 300,000 British soldiers were left massed and vulnerable on the beaches of the coastal French city of Dunkirk. This is the real history setup to the beginning of Dunkirk.
The movie comes from director and writer Christopher Nolan, and has been one of his planned ideas for a movie for over twenty-five years. The film follows three locations, divided by location and moving along at different increments of time. First is the mole, which was the long pier used to get fleeing soldiers onto the large destroyers. Here we follow the soldiers as they struggle against the odds to evacuate.
Primarily we follow a few grunts, ones not given names we hear, played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and eventually Harry Styles of One Direction fame. These young men go through a series of harrowing mini-adventures, trying their best to survive in the worst of conditions. The evacuation is also being commanded by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), but most of what we see is through the lower ranked men. This is the first timeline, spread out over a few days.
Second is the sea. We see a small boat manned by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is headed for Dunkirk to help with the evacuation, helped by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local kid George (Barry Keoghan). But along the way, they save a downed airman (Cillian Murphy), a shellshocked soldier who does not want to go back the war. So the conflict is there, and it’s before they’ve even reached the real conflict. This is the second timeline, spread out over a few hours.
Finally is the air, following airmen including Jack Lowden as Collins and Tom Hardy as Farrier, as they attempt to provide cover for the army and navy while also trying to take down enemy planes. This is the third timeline, spread out merely over an hour or so.
The movie hits each timeline as it goes, all leading up to the final, dramatic conclusion. Nolan masterfully leads us through each one, and if at first it may be a bit disorienting, soon the pieces all fall into place. The score by frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer is great, going tense, hollow, or triumphant as need be. The enemy is never referred to by name, and dialog is sparse.
This is a film that is truly immersive, immediately starting with wondrous cinematography and not letting up on the tension until the end. This is the most “real” of any of Nolan’s movies, and it feels like you’ve been dropped back in time to watch this critical time in history. There are no weak performances, not even from the singer Harry Styles, who I thought was great. Although the old-timers Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are naturally great as usual, the young guys are all excellent as well.
In a time of terror, some are heroes and some are not. The movie never lets you forget that despite everything, people are complicated, even in the face of utter evil. Sometimes movies affect you, pull you away from reality. This movie drew out emotion from me, in times awe, other times fear, other times joy. I’m hard pressed to argue with those kinds of results.
I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan since Memento, and this is yet another amazing movie from him. It’s personal in an expansive way, researched heavily, and yet because it’s usually from the perspective of people, it feels alive. It’s beautiful and horrible, one of the best films of the year.
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Dunkirk has a run time of 1 hour 46 minutes and is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.