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Saturday
Jul222017

DUNKIRK

Stars: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy and Harry Styles.
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan.

Rating: 2.5/5

State-of-the-art filmmaking and showy narrative technique meld uncomfortably with some hoary old war movie clichés in Dunkirk, the latest exercise in borderline bombast from Christopher Nolan. Despite being more aesthetically pleasing than Michael Bay’s garishly executed Pearl Harbour, Nolan’s big film in service of a small story has more in common with that much-maligned war pic than more serious minded award season contenders of past years like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli or Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.

The enormous undertaking of evacuating 400,000 allied troops from the French port city as Axis forces encircled them is one of the defining moments of World War II. Nolan sets up the immensity of the event with steely grey vistas encompassing the troops as they wait for their rescuers, their despair growing with each wave of terrifying Stuka dive-bombing assault. These establishing shots offer the kind of scale and artistry that have emerged as Nolan’s stock-in-trade but as his narrative unfolds, it becomes clear the director is not particularly interested in the practicalities of troop withdrawal.

We are led through the shivering battalions by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who has survived a tragic opening sequence by outrunning his doomed squad before queue-jumping his fellow soldiers by pretending to be a medic then hiding amongst the wooden structure of the evacuation point to ensure his spot when the boats arrive. These hardly seem the actions of a leading man in a tale of heroism, his thin characterisation further hampered by the scale of the production mounted around him. Tommy is joined by a silent French infantryman (Damien Bonnard) and a brash Brit named Alex (Harry Styles, ok in a role that doesn’t ask much of his developing acting chops), bonded by their survival at any cost instincts.

Tommy’s story is folded into three other sub-narratives that intercut in that non-linear manner by now very familiar to Nolan’s fervent fan base. Mark Rylance is Dawson, a patriotic Brit who, with his sons (Barry Keoghan; Tom Glynn-Carney) is amongst the many brave homelanders that set sail for Dunkirk to help recover his fighting countrymen; Tom Hardy is Spitfire pilot Farrier, who darts back and forth across the skies over the beach with his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden), dispersing ME-109’s and Heinkel bombers with ruthless efficiency; and, Kenneth Branagh who, as the evacuation’s senior office-on-point Commander Bolton, is responsible for much of Nolan’s occasionally clunky expository dialogue.

Nolan’s obsession with his fractured narrative structure perfectly suited his past works Memento and Inception (his best film, by some measure). The mechanism muddled the ambitious but fatally flawed Interstellar and is entirely unnecessary, even flagrantly indulgent, in Dunkirk. The showy, jigsaw-puzzle challenge the storytelling poses undermines involvement, only serving to draw attention away from the plight of his protagonists and onto the storyteller himself; one can picture Nolan in front of a chalkboard strategically plotting his structure with cool academic efficiency. Surely the filmmaker’s insistence upon imposing his favourite device upon all his narratives is edging towards Shyamalan-like overkill (and the inevitable marketplace backlash).

As in past efforts, the director relies upon a dense soundscape to throw a blanket over his plotting, leading to the now familiar “I can’t understand what they’re saying!” comments often associated with his work. Muddying up the mix is an overblown score by Hans Zimmer, which determines every scene, however intimate, must build to a crescendo, leading to series of ‘big moments’ that the narrative does not earn. By the time the director reacquaints himself and his audience with the benefits of a more conventional denouement, any investment in the character’s journey has long since dissipated; scenes of ‘big emotion’ in the third act feel capital-C ‘contrived’.

Where the film soars is as an aerial spectacle. Recalling the thrilling dogfight sequences of Guy Hamilton’s 1969 wartime classic Battle of Britain, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Lee Smith capture the nerve-shredding experience of life as a Spitfire pilot, the planes and the airmen afforded the kind of exhilarating hero-worship that is sorely missing from the rest of Nolan’s chilly, unaffecting opus.

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Reader Comments (23)

This review gets it exactly right. I just saw the movie. One of the most over-rated ever. Couldn't understand 9 out of 10 words. There was no plot. Just predictable, drawn-out, gratuitous, action. Wanted it to be over after 20 minutes.

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNH

This movie was really terrible. I rate it 2/5. The dialogue was incoherant most of the time. Zero suspense. Non-stop annoying thematic music in the background for the entire film. I considered walking out after an hour but stuck it out. It didn't get much better. I also hated all the characters for some reason.

July 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJon

I agree with this review. I saw it last night and thought it was predicable with little character development, making it difficult to be invested in the outcome of the main characters. There was a weird disconnect for me to a movie where you should have felt like you were in their shoes. Some of the action sequences were good but the overly dramatic music was laughable at times. Disappointing considering the subject matter and what could have been a terrific movie. Save your money and see something infinitely better like Hacksaw Ridge.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLG

I completely agree. I'll be the first to admit, I am most definitely a member of the "cult of Nolan" but I cannot in good conscience rank this movie as one of his best. I want to say I enjoyed the movie because it is technically and aesthetically brilliant, but the emotional campiness at the end and the weak payoff after 80 minutes of rising action just didn't do it for me. Contrary to what everyone else has said, I think the best acting is done by Tom Hardy with his 10 lines (that is, when you can actually understand what he is saying).

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Saw it last night with the highest of expectations. I'm a huge student (I wouldn't dare to say expert but others have not shied away from calling me that) of all things WWII, but I came way feeling very unsatisfied. There is no opening narrative that permits an average viewer with a passing knowledge of WWII to get a sense of the context of this event: when and where the Dunkirk evacuation occurred within the arch that covers the period 1939 - 1945. The dialogue was hard to understand, and I'm usually pretty good at following along and understanding spoken language with a light to moderate English accent... but not here. Just a very average piece of storytelling with some very good action sequences interspersed at a rate that kept me in the theater long enough to see the first few seconds of the closing credits.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. Pat

I thought this was the worst Nolan movie ever. Everyone is saying how fast paced it is, but it's really slow and boring and feels like 3 hours long. The characters are gross at times and you don't feel for anyone and it's all just a numb experience overall.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I can appreciate the points made here, particularly that about Nolan and his fixation with disjointed narrative (which is on the verge of growing tiresome), but honestly, I liked the film. Despite being visually beautiful there were a number of other aspects that I enjoyed.The dogfights were really well done and it was short enough that the fact that not much actually happened, or at least that not much was shown, didn't really matter too much.I know it isn't exactly a testament to historical accuracy or anything but the focus on the individuals was similar to the real experience of war. Nolan said in the run up to the release that the film was going to be a sort of theatrical virtual reality and I think he accomplished that quite well.
Most of the press has been positive, for which I am glad. Some people have certainly been a bit too congratulatory of the film; it's not the best film of the year by any means and probably not even the best war film (hacksaw ridge??). However, I feel that there will always be people who take a certain amount of pride in going against the grain just for the sake of it. Do we have another one here?

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Yup perfect review. Stupid dramatic music along with random sounds (like ticking throughout most of the movie, wtf??) trying to make up for the lack of any real drama. No dialogue of note. No characters of note. No combat of note. And no real picture of 400,000 stranded soldiers. Looked like 3000. Ugh.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commentersondog

Genuinely disappointed with Nolan as a story teller. This experience felt more like meeting Nolan the ringmaster of a circus littered with a few wow moments and the relentless pounding of a background score. Nolan went so wrong. So wrong.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMZ

In total agreement with this review and most of the comments made. Save your time and money on this. I can't even recommend waiting for its release as a rental.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLJHyde

This review gets it wrong. Of course Nolan leaves his stylistic mark on "Dunkirk," just as Spielberg and Eastwood leave characteristic signs of their methods, preferences and issues on their WWII films. Nolan likes to fracture the narrative--or, more fairly in this case, weave strands together to describe the frustrated attempts of British soldiers losing their perimeter to "go home," whether home is a country just across the channel, barely beyond sight, or a boat that one first swims to then swims away from lest one burn in oil first exploded then ignited by an Axis fighter bomber. Let Eastwood favor the linear narrative and Spielberg the emotional character arc. And I say that with utter respect and admiration. Nolan makes an original work of art that uses visual metaphor to describe not only the evacuation of 300,000 soldiers but also the specific experiences of different kinds of participants: officers, lowly--and very young--grunts, a father and son on a commercial boat (who have learned how to combat enemy planes from the other son, a now diseased RAF pilot), and Spitfire pilots. Nothing is glamorized, and none of the carnage is gratuitous. If anything, though it's all quite graphic, the suffering is at once personal and understated.

The movie is very painterly, for instance cleverly and compellingly juxtaposing the fall of two opposing fighters in the end--one a German plane that is outmaneuvered by the aforementioned father-son yacht-turned rescue boat and the other a Spitfire eerily out of fuel and coasting to a landing on the beach, right into the hands of the newly arrived German soldiers. The film making is gorgeous as Nolan allows for silence and not the allegedly intrusive soundtrack that this review and others complain of. In some ways it is a movie about the medium itself--the reach and power of the visual metaphor, from claustrophobic underwater viewpoints to spacious aerial viewpoints.

My one criticism is more a curiosity: why the young male lead is so lacking in dynamics? Branagh, as the commanding naval officer, and Rylance, as the father piloting the rescue yacht, are allowed far more emotional range. Most of the young soldiers seem numb, but maybe that is the point. The movie is in a way a short story, not a novel; it covers from start to finish, what, a few days? I think this focus is very effective, but other viewers may hanker for an epic. However, "Dunkirk" is not that scope of movie, and that is refreshing..

Why people want this to be another war drama with archetypal (or stereotypical) heroes, fallen comrades, and the love-interest subplot is beyond me. We have several Pearl Harbor films to fill that need, and a few are very good. "Dunkirk" creates its own niche in this well traveled genre, and that is hard to do.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

My biggest problems with the movie were the source material and lack of conflict. A movie about dunkirk? really? A movie about 400,000 men surrounded by german forces and over three quarters of them survive and are brought home. That is not at all interesting, the source material for this film is boring and uninspired. Its really historical fact that was brought to the big screen. The source material leads me into the other problem. There was no conflict. The established that they were surrounded on the beach by german forces....and thats it. They had planes fly in and do little bombing raids. The dogfights plateaued, they became a flight manual on how to take on the enemy. They were so lackluster in their execution that it was a chore to watch them. The boats coming to save those troops was the only scene that made me feel anything. Then they too became a boring part of the film. They weren't even under attack at any point. The fire on the ocean left no boat in jeopardy, it was pointless to even use it.

This movie is an example of watching a movie where everything turns out fine in the end. A few people died but everything went fine and the rest were returned home safe.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBen

how we agree! we thought there was something wrong with us walking out from the cinema feeling completely underwhelmed, after reading such rave reviews. wont repeat comments, but add laughable continuity.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterscilla allen

I wish the critics of Nolan's separate timelines would bother to understand why he did it this way. It's not a gimmick; it's an attempt to solve the problem that land, sea, and air combat all take place on different time scales. To show the endless, constant stress on Tommy requires letting his story evolve over days. To show the course of a single mission and its stresses on Farrier and Collins means showing us 60-90 minutes of their life. The Sea necessarily falls into the middle.

There isn't any satisfying way to do that without playing around with time frames. The alternatives are: 1) give snippets of different air missions conducted over the course of a week, which strips the continuity of the action; 2) have the flyboys show up on screen with the movie 90% over and let them dominate the rest of the way; or 3) make the movie an hour longer.

Maybe the separate timelines don't work for you, but at least acknowledge Nolan's actually motive.

July 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJ Michael Neal

Reading the above review and the comments below, I really do wonder two things...has anybody here actually made a film or set foot on a film set?...and did everybody watch the same film? Actually I'll add a third has anybody actually sat down to write a film set during WW2? I have and I will say that Mr Nolan has made the perfect choices every step of the way. I have never been a fan of his previous work, I admired his ambition with Inception but I have struggled to remain interested in his films. Here the Director has made a masterpiece. I am utterly bewildered by this comment from the reviewer...
"By the time the director reacquaints himself and his audience with the benefits of a more conventional denouement, any investment in the character’s journey has long since dissipated; scenes of ‘big emotion’ in the third act feel capital-C ‘contrived’. By the time the Director reacquaints himself with the audience?The Director has had the audience in his mind front and centre from the first frame. The tale is epic, the potential to get lost in exposition is massive, his experience and talents as a Director have said to me...I'll have none of that...I'm going to take you on a layered journey and this character is number one. I have sat and talked with many veterans over the years from WW2, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan...they will all tell you two things, if a bullet has your name on it...it'll find you and luck..plays a large factor in survival, luck is such an important, illusive factor it is why so many veterans are plagued with survivor guilt and PTSD. The existential question...why me? Why did I survive plagues the survivor, why me when so many others didn't make it? Chris Nolan has shown why luck plays such a vital part in war and how bravery and sacrifice compliments and helps drive luck...in an utterly petty selfish self obsessed world...I think a lot of people here who didn't appreciate Dunkirk should do two things...go and watch it again and go and try and write a film set during a war...I was on the edge of my seat watching this and I don't think the reviewer watched the same film, in fact I think the reviewer went into the film utterly underprepared and simply couldn't comprehend it and has written this review to be divisive and generate some click bait....as a filmmaker I learnt a great deal watching this film and we may never see another film like this for a very long time they are rare in a world where people are obsessed with fictional superheroes and pay scant regard to the real heroes that have made extreme sacrifices. I feel lucky that I have met a few in my time. It wasn't the genre of the film that grabbed me...it was the style and approach. Brilliant work.

July 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

I was glad to see someone had the same opinion as I. I am confused about the overwhelmingly positive reviews. Someone in the theater clapped when it was over and further confused me. I was confused about scenes in darkness switching to scenes in the boat by day. I was confused about why the hospital ship and the man on the stretcher they carried on board were still attached to the dock (when it was bombed) when in earlier scenes it had departed from the dock. I understood about 5% of the dialogue - which I don't think was even important. Never felt invested in any of the character's lives (well maybe the old guy piloting his own boat - but even then it never really tells why he is so knowledgeable about what he is doing, having a son killed in the air force does not mean you have specific information). I never felt like there was any urgency or threat. The occasional German bomber was not enough to put me on the edge of my seat.

I will say that I didn't hate the movie. I enjoyed the telling of the story. I did like the land, sea, air perspectives. I especially enjoyed the dogfights but as with everything, it felt very non-climactic. The director follows one private boat and you don't really see any others until one scene at the end. Even the one scene at the end does not depict the massive undertaking that was achieved during the actual rescue. The same with the air battles - what, maybe 4 different pilots in the dog fights? Seemed minimalistic, never really letting the audience know how massive this evacuation was (only by the lines on the beach that seem to appear and disappear without explanation).

It is not a movie I would buy or go see again. I am not going to run to my friends and say "You have to go see Dunkirk." It was mediocre at best. There are other really great true stories that do a much better job getting the audience involved like Hacksaw Ridge and Unbroken.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBronzloca

Excellent review. My 25 year-old son and I saw the film and were disappointed. Reviewer writes: "one can picture Nolan in front of a chalkboard strategically plotting his structure with cool academic efficiency" My son said something similar: "It felt like Nolan was making a movie instead of telling a story."

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlarry

Same view here. The music and the scenes do not match, barring the opening sequence everything felt drawn out, dogfights were good and never got the immensity of evacuation or the feel of German tank columns waiting for the command go or the conflict whether Hitler let the evacuation happen for peace treaty with Britain; or was It just a Luftwaffe - army conflict. I was ready to walk out too. Note I am 54 so difficult to impress, but even then.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterparth v

The problem is its not even trying to be a story. Nothing before, nothing after, nothing much in between, no one has any past, the event itself doesn't have an explanation, it doesn't have consequences, there is no interesting characters, there is no dialogues and, to top it all, no Germans! A WWII story without nothing, not even Germans, hard to beat!

Wait until his next experiment: an hour and a half staring at a black screen. The spectator will have to create a movie in his mind just by earing different sounds. Something rattling in the sand, a machine gun at a distance, a splash in the water... We will come out of the theater everyone with a different story to tell, isn't that brilliant!

Not there yet but close enough if you ask me.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMira

Now this review is one with which I can agree. Movie of this great story started out well-enough, was often gorgeously filmed, but that "fractured narrative" had me scratching my head; at least when I wasn't using my hands to protect my ears from the din of the machine-like score, which sounded more like construction next-door, or a bad knock-off of the band Kraftwerk.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDan Adams

i agree with everyone, this movie sucked. I didn't understand 95% of the dialogue and the music was just annoying. There was no back story - not even a date for historical reference. But the most terrible part of this crappy movie was the dumb ass plot with the angry soldier taken on board Mark Rylance's boat - and then having the young boy die after falling down the steps in a tussle. Not once did the father go to see how he was doing down below - bleeding badly - not once did he stop steering the ship to see how his young son was - not a tear, not a grimace, not a word - when he was told he was dead. I have never seen anything like this - what the hell - who wrote this crap? And when the other son was asked how his brother was - by the cowardly soldier - he said he was fine!! I think this was the dumbest subplot ever written in the history of cinema. What a shame - how did Mark Rylance take this part? How can any father not show a shred of emotion learning his young healthy son was dying from an absurd accident on board his boat. I just can't get over this. The whole movie was a waste of time and money.

July 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Graziano

I agree with this review as well. When I see this movie compared to Saving Private Ryan, I am genuinely confused. In Private Ryan, you had back stories for the characters and felt for them throughout the movie. The action in this movie far outweighs the dialogue to its detriment.
Also, the score in the movie became oppressive and an impediment to watching. It almost seemed contrived to create emotions for the audience that were absent due to no character development. Who are these people? How did they get there? And why do we care 77 years later?
I cannot see this movie winning Best Picture, Best Director, and no acting awards unless we are living in a parallel universe. I came in with high hopes but honestly feel watching this movie today was one more time than I should have.

July 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJ.M.

Since this seems to be one of the few sensible reviews out there, I'll add my two cents. Other than the completely uncessary gimmick of merging three different time frames, two things about this film really annoyed.

First was the magnitude, or lack thereof. Dunkirk was huge, and if you look at contemporary photos of the evacuation, you truly get a sense of what 400,000 troops waiting on a beach looked like. In Nolan's film, I kept wondering where the other 399,500 of them were -- the beach seemed stupidly empty. Surely in today's CGI era and a massive Hollywood budget, Nolan could have managed to add in a few more people and pay at least lip-service to some realism. And then there were the little ships. All eight of them, apparently, with barely another vessel, military or otherwise, anywhere in sight. In reality, around 800 ships were involved in the evacuation ... surely we could have seen a few more on screen. (Of course, in the scope of evacuating the 500 apparent troops on the beach, eight little ships and one destroyer makes perfect sense ... so I guess Nolan was at least being internally consistent, or something.)

Historical accuracy was my other issue. If all you knew of Dunkirk was gleaned from this film, you'd think that the little ships sailed up to Dunkirk, picked up a handful of troops floundering in the water and sailed them back to England pretty much unscathed. In reality, they were used to shuttle troops back and forward between the beach and the destroyers waiting offshore, and many were sunk. In Nolan's film I never felt that the few little ships we saw were in any form of danger at all.

Mind you, I didn't actually feel that anyone or anything was in much danger the whole film, except for the concept of decent dialogue. The lines, "What do you see?" "I see home!" have to be some of the cheesiest of all time. In a film of few words, how that schmaltz survived the cutting-room floor is beyond me.

July 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterOM

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