Review: Dunkirk

Inventive and Ingenious

Reviewed by Tim Leibbrandt (1/ 8/ 17)

Eschewing circular narrative twists and sci-fi leanings, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is certainly an unusual film for the writer/director. It’s also undeniably one of his best.


Dunkirk’s narrative is divided along the lines of land, sea and air, with each story arc somewhat intersecting by the end, although the land arc takes place over the course of a week, the sea over a day and the air over an hour. Viewers who miss those crucial time cues (presented via title cards in the beginning) may have a hard time consolidating the incongruity of the onscreen action.

It’s not a major gripe ultimately as Dunkirk is the sort of film that throws the audience into the thick of things as an accomplice and largely leaves them to their own devices to make sense of the unfolding events and respond as they see feel compelled.

Dunkirk is not a conventional war movie epic and is largely concentrated on individuals or small groups. The full scale of the surrounding backdrop of the Dunkirk evacuations is conveyed mostly through exchanges between characters. As a whole, dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the focus is on action and reaction.

It is almost documentary in its tone, resisting the emotional-manipulation cues and hackneyed character drama that usually accompany war films. There is no sense of ham-fisted patriotism and the film very much takes its tonal direction from Winston Churchill’s assertion – following the events depicted in it- that “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” It is a film about survival and duty, but without delusions of grandeur and/or faux Wilfred Owen posturing.

Key to the film’s success is how its components work together to create this tense, immersive effect. From a technical standpoint there’s nothing to moan about. The visuals are exceptionally rich without demanding attention. They utilize incredible detail and meticulous framing to enhance the captivating effect of the story rather than to pull you out and be scenic. The sound design too fits right in. There’s something to be said for the synergy that emerges from long-standing creative partnerships and the one between Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan continues to yield some of the finest soundtrack work to be found anywhere.

Bombastic when necessary, restrained for much of the time and subtly incorporating sound elements from the story and setting to create atmosphere and set the pace; it’s equal parts inventive and ingenious.

A complaint which has been leveled against Nolan’s work in the past has been the relative bloodlessness of his violence. In The Dark Knight Rises this was pushed to the point of absurdity when many character deaths appeared almost comical because of how coyly they were handled. With Dunkirk this subdued approach becomes a strength. The expected blood and gore in war films (from Saving Private Ryan to Hacksaw Ridge) has become such a well-worn trope that it largely ceases to be a shocking reflection of the realities of war and instead plays to horror genre gore-hounds. Nolan’s restraint here serves to keep the emphasis on the character’s survival rather than the anticipation of grisly demise, and it works. In fact the film rarely, if ever, actually shows the enemy forces, their looming presence is largely implied (but no less threatening, as the nail-biting opening sequence testifies).

Crucially important is that one watches Dunkirk on as large a screen as possible (ideally 4K or Imax) as a huge part of the film’s impact is lost on a smaller setup. It may seem a pernickety observation, but viewed at large scale, Dunkirk is an immersive, tense and harrowing experience.

On a smaller screen, the slightly patchy narrative, jarring moments and niggling cracks are allowed to push forward a bit more and detract from the experience. Which is to say in a sense, that Dunkirk is not a flawless film; but one intended to be experienced in an overwhelmed state with gut reactions ‘in the moment’; without time to weigh-out options and reflect. Seen at it’s best, there’s nothing quite like it.

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