‘Dunkirk’ Review: Christopher Nolan Gives the War Film a Shot in the Arm

Kim Taylor-Foster
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Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s dramatized look at the WWII battle which saw allied troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, France and the evacuation that followed.

Show, Don’t Tell

If ever there was a film made strictly according to the filmmaker’s mantra ‘Show, don’t tell’, Dunkirk is it.

Sparing with exposition and conventional storytelling, director Christopher Nolan makes only a small handful of concessions to traditional movie-narrative construction – setting out his stall right from the beginning. Just a few sparse words fill the screen as the film starts, setting the scene.

“The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.”

More words will follow as the film gets into its stride to demarcate timelines. We’ll follow Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, a soldier on the ground, for the length of the ordeal – a week. We’ll witness Mark Rylance’s small-boat owner who has taken to the water for a day. And we’ll see Tom Hardy’s pilot airborn for an hour. The timelines will ultimately converge, and overlap.

Stripped-back Characterization

We know nothing of Tom Hardy's pilot character – but his bravery is so moving

A handful of moments of exposition from Kenneth Branagh’s senior officer are the only other – unnecessary – concessions made. A compromise, perhaps, for the film’s financiers. Characters aren’t constructed beyond illustrating the effects the traumatising episodes of war have on them. We know nothing of soldiers’ backgrounds, hopes and dreams; Rylance’s Mr Dawson is the closest we get to a traditionally drawn character.

He’s a moral man, carrying out his duty heroically, motivated by a desire to save these boys who are hands-on in a war not of their design. He’s set sail with his two sons – and by the end, we learn the poignancy to his story, which is tied to where his determination, resourcefulness and profound understanding of war come from.

And we don’t need more than this. Nolan’s presentation of events is all the more powerful with its pared-back characters. We have no less of a sense of them as people, and it even helps to universalize the torment. These are young men, largely unaware of what they’ve been dropped into, tasked with fighting a war dictated by men much older than them, who sit safe and sound behind desks.

This is a sentiment uttered by Mark Rylance’s character – owner of a pleasure boat answering the “small vessels call”. If you don’t know why this happened, Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton conveniently lets us know later that it’s a strategy they’re employing to evacuate soldiers in the absence of destroyer ships. For ‘absence’ read ‘refusal to send in’.

The Styles Verdict

dunkirk harry styles
Harry Styles: His reactions are everything

This far in, and we still haven’t mentioned Harry Styles. For the record, the former boy band star is great, but with extremely limited dialogue, his role – like much of the rest of the cast – is less acting, more reacting.

The Dunkirk shoot couldn’t have been anything other than arduous. You get the feeling that almost every second of Styles’s screen time displays his real emotions and reactions to what he’s being subjected to.

Of the film’s curbed dialogue, only about 50% is audible, partly because the film’s score and sound effects are so engulfing and partly because the pilots’ faces are obscured behind masks. This includes cinema’s most handsome leading man, the gruff-voiced Tom Hardy, who straps on a mask for an entire film for the second time in five years.

Defying the Hollywood Template

But this is a film that doesn’t need dialogue to tell its story, make an impact or pack an emotional punch. It defies the Hollywood template at nearly every turn, presenting instead an extended climax that is cut loose from conventional storytelling techniques. It’s like Nolan jettisons acts one and two to get straight to the nitty gritty of act three. What he presents in Dunkirk is a snapshot of war; a depiction of one infamous battle during one war in one century that also serves to universalise the experience.

Footage is assembled documentary-style; it’s almost like newsreel footage without any voiceover, cut together with the kind of mobile phone footage of grand-scale incidents we’re used to seeing today. If camera phones had existed in 1940, you can bet we’d get shots like some of Nolan’s here.

Christopher Nolan makes one of several decisions crucial to the success of this film, and that’s to shy away from showing the ‘horrors’ of war. By ‘horrors’ we mean the blood, the blown-up bodies, the guts, the severed limbs, the gore.

Modern war movies have frequently focused on this. Movies like Mel Gibson’s recent Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan are all about the visceral, bloody reality of war.

Redefining Visceral

dunkirk feature hero

Dunkirk is visceral in a different way. Faces tell the tale, thousand yard stares, the actions of soldiers enduring the onslaught of war. The group of soldiers who wait it out below deck in a grounded trawler while the tide comes in. Trapped, they’re forced to cower as bullets pierce the hull and the boat starts filling with water. Nolan’s cutting in of parallel action featuring a downed pilot struggling to free himself from his sinking plane. These sequences ramp up the tension to unbearable levels.

And yet despite these harrowing plot points, Dunkirk is never melodramatic. The tone of the film is set by the sheer impact of events combined with Hans Zimmer’s masterful score.

And if it’s ever in any danger of spilling over into sensationalism, it’s whipped right back to grounded with a well-placed “There’s a nice cup of tea for you”, or a shot of soldiers wolfing down bread and jam. Nolan set out to tell a suspenseful survival story that was stripped back and intense. He’s succeeded.

Is Dunkirk Good?

Christopher Nolan lines up a shot

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s shortest film since his first feature and it’s arguably his best. Any longer and it would have been too much to take. An endurance of the best kind, the film starts tense and gets tenser, with Nolan working alongside Zimmer to wind it up tighter and tighter before finally letting up when the credits roll.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.