Dunkirk written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Syncopy, Warner Bros., Dombey Street Productions, PG-13, 106 min)
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Harry Styles.
In Observations of Our Senses
Life doesn’t often assault the senses. Most days introduce subtle shades of aesthetic experience. The scent of first rain, the afterglow of dusk, the contrapuntal melody of sparrows at dawn, the soft skin of child’s cheek snuggled up against a parent after crawling into the parent’s bed in the middle of the night. These are how we use our senses.
War, however, provides an assault on every sense. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan achieves his aim of depicting this assault.
Assault of the Senses
It begins with the very first shot, a wide-angle of soldiers walking down an abandoned Dunkirk ochre-tinged street. Nazi pamphlets flutter in the air against the closest thing approximating silence.
The percussive bass of heavy artillery interrupts this placid introduction and winds the clock (literally if you considerd Hans Zimmer’s score) for a stress-filled depiction of the famous evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk.
Told through Christopher Nolan’s trademark matryoshka-doll-narrative structure, Dunkirk blends together stories told over the course of a week, a day, and an hour on land, sea, and, air.
In the longest running story, the mole, a trio of Allied soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) look for a way off the beach. For those unaware of the historical Battle of Dunkirk, German forces have boxed the allied forces in the northerly French city of Dunkirk. Stranded on the beach and awaiting ships to transfer troops back to England, the Allied forces represent target practice for the Luftwaffe.
Not wanting to end life as cannon fodder, these three soldiers keep looking for opportunities to board the limited ships available for transport.
In the middle story, a father (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) answer the call for help in the evacuation effort. Throwing every life preserver they own on their pleasure yacht, they set sail for the coast of France, unaware of what’s to come but ready to assist in any way.
Lastly, at the heart of the battle and during the key hour of the evacuation, the Royal Air Force provides cover for the retreat. Farrier (Tom Hardy) dogfights with German pilots, long after the safety net of reserve fuel depletes.
These three stories splice together in engaging ways as the momentous task of evacuating the Allied armies come into focus.
An Aesthetic and Sensory Experience
And yet, the aim of Nolan’s filmmaking schemes toward this aesthetic and sensory experience. What little dialogue that exists in the film focuses on the task at hand. Outside of a handful of generals describing strategy (and thankfully exposition for us viewers) or a few character beats, the film focuses heavily on visuals and noise.
With ochre, olive, and azure hues, Dunkirk balances between aesthetically pleasing and aesthetically melancholy. But even more, Hans Zimmer’s score blends into the natural sounds of war, a ticking clock speeding up and slowing down depending on the level of peril, ticking constantly throughout the full runtime.
Ultimately, such an assault on the sense leaves a viewer in an unsettling place. Certainly, Nolan aims for this uneasiness as it provides a facsimile of war. Yet, it is difficult to call this film entertaining in a classic blockbuster sense. Dunkirk will stay with me and I recommend it, but be aware of its artistic intentions. You’ll feel the assault from the first minute and it won’t stop until the credits roll.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5