In May 1940, Germany advanced into France, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated.
Review : Few periods in world history have been the subject of as many movies as the Second World War. Dunkirk is the latest among these, capturing the efforts that went into the evacuation of the Allied forces.
The first thing that struck me about the film was the near-lack of any dialogue in the opening 3-4 minutes. An opening note details the gravity of the situation, and then we see a group of British soldiers running towards the fortified area surrounding the beach.
Once you see the beach and the sheer number of soldiers struck there, the enormity well and truly dawns on you. And that is when the background score, a disturbing, incessant hum with occasional, deafening sounds of bombers and bullets, starts to take over. I couldn’t stop comparing this film to Christopher Nolan’s last, Interstellar. Both films have high-decibel soundtracks. But where it distracted in Interstellar, the score serves to detail the horrors of war here. Longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer is at the top of his game here.
And then there is the cinematography. Hoyte Van Hoytema, who came onboard the Nolan train for Interstellar (regular cinematographer Wally Pfister was off to make his own directorial début with Transcendence), has done such a fine work here that at times you almost forget that you are watching a movie. There are sweeping, gorgeous shots of the Dunkirk beach at various intervals. When there are closeups, the camera never gets too close to the characters’ faces, instead focusing on how their expressions change from pensive to delighted to worried, all in a single shot. The fighter plane scenes are shown both from distance and from the vision of the following jet. When the jet ahead suddenly appears after having gone out of vision, we are straining our heads to see the craft, as you would in a video game.
All this, and we haven’t yet discussed the screenplay and the performances. At 106 minutes, this is the shortest Christopher Nolan film. And you can see why. The screenplay is so taut that right from the opening scene, there is barely a second when you can afford to take your eyes off the screen. Barely. The climax of the film is already known because of the real-life story behind it and the trailers built on that, rather than hiding them. But there are two major things about the film that they don’t tell. They’d become clear once you watch the film. Suffice it to say that the film has been designed in a way that makes it an immersive visual experience, a war film that shows the trauma of war from the point of view of an ordinary person as also the courage displayed by the same ordinary people when put in dangerous, life-or-death positions.
There are great performances across the board. Cillian Murphy as the PTSD-suffering soldier, Tom Hardy as the Spitfire pilot and Kenneth Branagh as the pier-master during evacuation all shine in their roles. But the real star-turns are taken by Mark Rylance as the captain of the luxury boat Moonstone and newcomer Fionn Whitehead as Private Tommy, through whose eyes we see most of the story develop. Rylance lends a touch of gravitas and bravery to his role, while Whitehead is terrific as the young soldier who is tired of the sounds of war and only wants to go home.
Also notable, as I mentioned at the start, is the fact that this is a story driven by visuals and the precariousness of the situation of the 400,000 soldiers. Mr. Nolan meant it to be a visual film about the effort, rather than one with lots of backstory and singular redemption of the lead characters. Plus, this war film doesn’t have Americans in it, nor did the evacuation at Dunkirk count as a victory. And yet, we have a compelling movie about the many ordinary men and women who combined to extraordinary effect.
Do I have criticisms of the movie? Yes and no. Yes because,
a) It has barely any woman among the major characters.
b) Because it didn’t even acknowledge the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers involved. The French are angry about their lack of representation. The Churchill speech at the end of the evacuation said that the British empire would continue the fight if Britain fell to the Nazis. No prizes for guessing what the empire’s crown jewel was. Guess we Indians would simply have to take it in our stride.
No, because I don’t think the filmmaker meant it as a history lesson. Of course, it wouldn’t fully stand up to a historical appraisal. And of course, gender equality is important. But as a film, as a picturization of the helplessness and the heroicism of the people affected by war, this is top-notch.
Predictions : I predict Oscar nominations for cinematography, background score, original screenplay and either or both of Mark Rylance and Fionn Whitehead.
Verdict : Dunkirk is one of the best films of the year so far and without doubt, a great war film. After mild disappointments with his previous two films, Mr. Nolan is back atop Hollywood’s perch.
Viewing Guide : No gore or strong language issues here. However, the sometimes-deafening score means I would advise against taking infants and young kids to the cinema.
Genre : War, Drama, Action
Rating : ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Have you watched Dunkirk? How do you think it is? Did this review measure up to your own appraisal? Please tell me in the comments section.
Thanks for reading.