Christopher Nolan is back, with what may be his most bold and experimental film to date, Dunkirk. Based on the true events of British and French soldiers stuck in Dunkirk, France, during World War II. Stranded waiting for help, and the German forces stopping those coming to rescue the soldiers at every movie, hope seems lost for those left on the beach. Nolan has taken a point in history that’s widely forgotten by many, and put it together in only a way that he could. This is far from a typical war film, and much more of an experience that puts the viewer into the events that transpired at Dunkirk.
The fact that Dunkirk is such an experimental film is going to make it something that’s a bit divisive, but makes it wholly original. Nolan has crafted a film that is low on dialogue, and to be honest, low on character and story, in order to create a film that feels like you’re there. The idea of having mostly nameless characters makes you feel like these soldiers could have been anyone you know. There’s something to be said about that approach to the film, and it’s a double edged sword for the viewer. While the idea of having nameless characters to make the audience feel as if they’re one of these soldiers works on a certain level, it also alienates the audience to a certain degree. Without a core character to really get behind, or really knowing these soldiers, it’s hard to really care about them. But, that seems to be the concise idea behind the film, and Nolan pulls it off in an interesting way.
It’s just so strange to be getting actors like Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, and James D’Arcy in the cast and giving them so little dialogue throughout. Though, Branagh seems to be the one who comes out ahead in that regard, as he’s used for much of the film’s exposition throughout, trying to keep the audience clued in on what’s happening. But every actor brings their best throughout, even first time actor Harry Styles, to their characters. It’s actually impressive how much these actors are able to do with so little dialogue. Nolan works hard to get the best out of every actor, and honestly, this movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t at least buy into the characters in some way. Though you don’t get to know them, you do feel for them, and that’s because you recognize these familiar faces.
The truth is, Dunkirk isn’t really a film about these characters, or even the story. This is a movie that’s about putting the audience in the middle of this event. It’s supposed to make you feel like you’re a part of that, and that’s what Nolan does best with this film. Shot almost entirely in IMAX, Nolan crafts something that is tense, gripping, and at times will leave the audience trying to find time to breathe. It’s incredibly impressive what he’s crafted on that level alone with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. The way the movie is shot puts the audience right in the middle of this conflict, and it rarely lets up. The movie is absolutely relenting at times, leaving the audience caught in the middle of this dreaded situation. Nolan has gone above and beyond as a director, and in terms of what he’s accomplished behind the camera as a filmmaker, this may be his best work yet.
The only other thing that may leave audiences a little cold is the film’s narrative, which is as experimental as anything else. This isn’t a straightforward storyline by any means, and Nolan has meticulously crafted a broken narrative into something exhilarating. But because of the way the story is told, it doesn’t always make sense. It can shift between storylines so quickly that it might leave the audience disoriented and confused, which again, seems to actually be Nolan’s intent. He really wants to make the audience feel like they’re in this as knee deep as the soldier’s, and by letting the story play out that way, the audience sees the conflict from every angle. It’s a fascinating way to break down this story, but much of the time, it works. There’s some parts of the story that don’t quite always gel together, but it works more often than it doesn’t, which is really what matters for the film.
Dunkirk is simply put, masterclass filmmaking by Nolan. While the movie doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, it’s still amazing what he was able to put together. This film is an experience more than anything, and that alone makes it well worth seeing. The cast is excellent throughout, even if they aren’t given much character work, or even much dialogue. But that’s the beauty of the film is that the audience is living through this with everyone else, and they’re just another nameless character stuck in Dunkirk. This will certainly be one of the most unique films of the year, and will be one that will be talked about for many years to come.