The evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 holds an iconic, solemn place in British culture. Any film made about this historical flashpoint will have a prewired emotional impact for English audiences, as movies about Pearl Harbor or 9/11 do for Americans. In Dunkirk, British director Christopher Nolan assumes, intentionally or otherwise, that viewers will arrive with the necessary contextual underpinnings already in place. It’s an English film for English people, so historical exposition is scarcer than usual.
In its optimal format—Nolan, long an IMAX advocate, shot most of the film using 70mm IMAX cameras—Dunkirk is a sensory fantasia, part paean and part requiem. It’s a marriage of sight, sound, and scope that envelops the viewer with an ultra-earnest homage to the roughly 400,000 soldiers, mostly British and French, who were bottled up on the western beaches of France by the advancing German army. The trapped troops were nearly defenseless against constant attacks from German pilots, with only sand and sea foam to bury the dead. Any ships attempting rescue were vulnerable to attacks from enemy U-boats.
The nature of time often figures prominently in Nolan’s oeuvre, and in Dunkirk, he and longtime editor Lee Smith constantly crosscut between three overlapping, ultimately intersecting chronologies. One, spanning a hellish week, deals with the plight of soldiers and officers on the beach. Another follows the daylong voyage of a civilian boat from Dorset, England, piloted by a father (Mark Rylance) and his teenage sons—one of hundreds of “little ships of Dunkirk” that traversed the English Channel to assist in the rescue. In the third, Tom Hardy plays an English pilot on an hour-long mission to dogfight the Luftwaffe planes intent on strafing the stranded soldiers and their would-be saviors.
The towering IMAX image is immersive while also replicating the tunnel vision that soldiers and pilots experience in battle. But the film’s flaws are sharpened on a standard screen. Hans Zimmer’s incessant, sometimes dissonant score eventually overwhelms the action. There are times when the PG-13 rating seems to constrain the depiction of war’s horrible, bloody reality. Moreover, a gross lack of character development becomes pronounced. Many of the principal soldiers (including one portrayed by Harry Styles) lack proper names and keeping track of them grows increasingly difficult through Nolan’s fog of war. Such is the anonymous nature of warfare. But when a film bothers to create protagonists, a deeper connection to them is warranted.
Rylance, who is terrific, and a British commander played by Kenneth Branagh enjoy fleeting moments of projecting British dignity and resolve. It’s both a testament to Hardy’s acting acumen and an indictment of the lack of character depth that he’s one of Dunkirk’s most accessible characters, despite having little dialogue and being stuck in a cockpit. (His face is also covered by a mask, like it was in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, for most of his screen time.)
Like the films of Terrence Malick, Dunkirk is both epic and meditative. But, also like Malick, it’s a high-minded morass. It needs to be seen in the proper format and an English frame of mind.