The British army has been forced on to the French beach of Dunkirk as the Germans close in from all sides. With hundreds of thousands of men waiting in the sand for a boat ride home, they sit like fish in a barrel under Nazi bombers.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, follows three stories in this iconic moment of British military history. There’s RAF fighters taking out German planes from the skies (including Tom Hardy); a civilian man, his son and young companion sailing across the channel on their own boat to help with the rescue effort (including Mark Rylance); and a group of soldiers on the beach just doing their best to find a boat and stay alive (including Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead).
Nolan plays with time in the telling of these Dunkirk stories, following each set of characters one day, week and hour before they all come together at one moment. This can be confusing but ultimately works well, because it helps to disperse the moments of action and tension much more evenly throughout the film than if it had followed a linear chronology.
This film was sold to us as epic on a scale we’d never seen before, and whilst it is indeed remarkable in many ways, it sadly left us underwhelmed.
The best things about Dunkirk are clear – the score is looming, grating, ominous, intense. It puts you on edge pretty much from the word go until the credits roll, and never lets you get comfortable.
Even more awesome is the sheer scale and cinematography of the film; vast shots of the sea and sky, the spitfires spinning and looping in a way that’s enough to turn your stomach, the sense of bombs dropping nearby and the fear we see on screen as the Nazis fly overhead once again. It looks as dark and wet and cold and gloomy as you’d expect the actual experience would have been.
But other than that…there’s not that much to get stuck into. Yes, we went into watching this imagining it to be more of a cinematic experience than a character study or heavy plot piece just by the nature of the beast, and yes it creates tension and atmosphere impeccably well, but it didn’t leave us quite as mindblown as we’d hoped.
The screen size has to be at play here. In a big dark cinema, the screen looming over you as you’re sat right there in the boats, it’s likely to be altogether more immersive. But watching on an average size TV screen, it feels like a lot of that was lost and diffused. And whilst films are primarily made for cinematic viewing (although less and less so these days), chances are a lot of people won’t get to see it there, and if it falls completely flat on home viewings, that’s a problem.
The work Nolan has done on immersing the viewer in the experience of war is undeniable, and there is mastery at work here in the aforementioned score, tone, look and feel – but the lack of any great depth of character, some oddly specific plot choices and (by nature) repetitiveness of the threat of overhead assaults means there’s only really one dimension in which to enjoy this film. No matter how good that dimension is, it needs more than that to truly work.
Everyone does fine with what they have, and the quality of the cast is ridiculously high. Hardy, Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh – even Harry Styles has proven he can deliver a line or two. But the issue is that they’re given barely anything to work with.
Dunkirk gets 3 stars from The CineBlog – don’t hurt us! It’s a cinematic feat, no doubt, but one that therefore only makes the maximum impact in a cinematic environment. Nolan could never be bad, but this isn’t one of his best.
Dunkirk is available on DVD now. Take a look at the trailer below.