Review: Dunkirk (2017) — An immersively intense war film by Christopher Nolan

harry styles damien bonnard fionn whitehead dunkirk still


Movie review

Directed and written by Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, Memento), Dunkirk is tells the story of one of the key events in World War II where 400,000 Allied soldiers were surrounded by Nazi German army on the titular beach in France. As they were completely trapped in the corner, their only hope for survival was to be evacuated by sea; or eventually die from air strikes or be captured on the ground by the German troops who’re closing in on the Allies’ defence perimeter.

Despite this being his first war/historical film, Nolan boldly incorporates his trademark unconventional style into Dunkirk and delivers a very effectively immersive and intense cinematic experience — with composer Hans Zimmer (Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy), cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Spectre, Interstellar)… and Sir Michael Caine (cameo as radio communication) again. While the narratives are slightly non-linear, the film has a fast, no-nonsense pacing. Nolan chose to tell the epic story from three perspectives — the ground, sea and air — depicting the genuine horror and heroics. Although the characters are fictional as required by the precise “mathematical structure” of his screenplay, Nolan spoke to veterans and eyewitnesses who shared their experience with him and also worked with historical consultant Joshua Levine to keep most parts of the film as accurate as possible.

There’s almost no character development, no romance story at all and very little dialogues. It doesn’t even show the audience around the beach much since Atonement (2007) has already done that so well. Right off the bat from the beginning, the film follows its main character, young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who gets to the already cornered Dunkirk where the stranded thousands formed long lines of queues, awaiting to board any ships or boats while the Germans’ Luftwaffe air force bomb the wide-open beach from the air. Who survives basically depends on luck as there really isn’t any where to hide.

little boat dunkirk air force

Almost every time the film shifts to the story on the ground, it gets extremely terrifying as the uniquely shot and seemingly realistic sequences with convincing performances by the actors, heart-stopping sound effects and the piercingly intense score by Zimmer, really makes me feel just how helpless and desperate the soldiers there are, trapped by the sea with little to no hope of surviving. And the amazing thing is that not only these impressive scenes are done with mostly practical effects, but also without showing any German soldiers on screen.

The story on the sea where civilian mariner Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son and his friend are on the way with their little boat to help bring some soldiers back to England, is also quite gripping as they get nearer to Dunkirk, especially after rescuing a British soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s in shock and refuses to go back to Dunkirk. In the air, where the dogfights between the Royal Air Force (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) and the Luftwaffe are happening away from the beach, is surprisingly the least engaging parts in the film as the pilots are portrayed to be overly calm and composed. Most of the other actors performed really well, even debuting actor Harry Styles (member of boy band One Direction) who plays an unlikable British Army private.

There are only two other questionable things about the film. One of its final scenes shows a character ending up in an unfavourable situation. I didn’t clearly see the necessity of that and I didn’t feel much for him. This is the obvious downside of the story’s approach where the audience are supposed to just emotionally invest in the situations of these undeveloped, fictional characters. And the other thing is not showing enough of the sacrifices and contribution of the French soldiers who defended the perimeter and stayed behind.

dunkirk movie 65mm film vs standard imax comparison

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To watch in IMAX? Shot on 65mm and IMAX films, we might not get to see the full glory of the film visually at the standard digital cinemas here in Malaysia. However, it was still highly immersive watching it in TGV’s IMAX hall. The audio was so strong that when an aircraft flies pass on screen, my seat sort of vibrated to the sound and it felt so real. So anyway, yes, I would recommend you to catch it in IMAX. Ideally, in an IMAX 70mm cinema.

Malaysian censorship: There are plenty of terrifying images and deaths of war in the film but I doubt any scene was cut (at the press screening at least). Actually, come to think of it, I only recall seeing blood in one scene.

Verdict: One of the most immersively intense war films I’ve ever seen but not my favourite Nolan movie.

Rating: 4 / 5

* In honour of the subject, no meme was created with this review.

dunkirk movie poster malaysiaGenre: War thriller drama
Running Time: 106 minutes
Director-writer: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney

Malaysia Release Date: 20 July 2017
Rated: P13
Local Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Malaysia
Production: Warner Bros., Syncopy, and more

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