One of the biggest criticisms some have of Christopher Nolan is that he sacrifices story for bombast (my biggest criticism is the way he treats women but don’t worry, there are no women here... Phew!). This has never been more evident than in Dunkirk, a big, messy – though not entirely un-enjoyable – IMAX-sized slab of bombast.
Dunkirk was a pivotal moment in WWII that is surprisingly underrepresented in cinema and it's okay for this film to be bombastic but with that pomposity we need characters to draw us along. This film doesn’t have characters, it just has people. Its easy to be glib about spoilers when talking about films based on historical events but of course most historical dramas are a backdrop for telling human stories, Dunkirk is no different but where it falls down is that, with very few exceptions, I didn’t care about the people on screen. Partly because I never truly felt any threat and partly because they’re so one-dimensional.
I wouldn’t say I liked it but the film is enjoyable enough on the surface, however it has two major flaws which highlight the overall emotional emptiness of the film. Firstly, the film lacks drama. I don’t mean dramatic things but actual drama. There’s little real tension, every beat is predictable, workman like. The film makes no attempt to twist or turn, its a refreshingly simple narrative in that respect and while I enjoyed aspects of this simplicity it meant there were no surprises, no un-signposted moments, no drama. Too often I was thinking 'I know XYZ won't happen in this scene because ABC hasn’t happened yet'. The broken timeline attempts to inject tension into a very simple tale but is only partially successful.
At the start we’re introduced to a soldier at Dunkirk, a fighter pilot over the channel, and a captain of a civilian boat - each introduced at a different point in time leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk - and we jump between these points until converging, more or less, at the finale. This works to a degree but it’s a technique used to create additional or, at times, forced tension and there are moments here it’s used to an almost distracting degree. The flipping between timelines never feels confusing but it does feel a little perfunctory. Cutting back and forth between characters you know are going to escape from their sinking cockpit/boat etc. doesn’t increase the tension, it just drags out the moment.
The second, larger flaw, which exacerbated the other problems I had with it, was the music. Hanz Zimmer’s score is so overbearing, aggressive and relentless that it doesn’t allow you to develop any emotional reaction or connection to what you’re seeing onscreen. It’s like an impenetrable barrier which prevents an audience the chance to fully experience the film underneath. It’s a shame because as the film started I was struck by how good the sound mix was, the quietness set against sudden explosions and gunfire, men running on sand, planes overhead. These all created a strong, evocative soundscape immersing you in the scenes but quickly the score took over and engulfed the film. The constant hum of discordant music, intended to unsettle and create tension, was so overused at times it was almost comical and nuance got lost in the mix. Many scenes would have been more powerful in ambient silence. The constant music begins to lose meaning and just becomes bland, emotionless sound; cinematic elevator music.
The cast is very strong and help keep you engaged through the quagmire. With Michael Caine, now at an age where he’s probably off helping Captain Mainwaring, Nolan doesn’t have his usual fave thesp on the frontline to deliver exposition dumps (though keen-eared viewers might spot Sir Mike doing his bit), Kenneth Branagh, as Commander Bolton, does most of the work here. He and Mark Rylance have the worst of the lines to deliver but their performances are so good they just about get away with it. The film has very little dialogue so when people do speak, Nolan makes it count. Characters speak in portentous, emotionally shallow, pseudo-poetic trailer soundbites. The words are grand but they’re meaning very little.
Newcomer Fionn Whitehead gives a convincing, weary performance, though calling his character Tommy is a bit on the nose. George (Barry Keoghan) is probably the weakest; a little lacklustre in performance, and as much as I love Cillian Murphy (showing manic, fearful depth here) his accent is a bit of a mess. The standout for me was Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter Dawson, perhaps the only character that has an actual emotional journey with any level of growth. He gets to be afraid, angry, brave and he learns from his experiences, allowing him to deliver the films one truest moment of human compassion.
Harry Styles, by the way, is fine. His acting and line delivery isn’t amazing but he’s okay. It’s hard to know if he’d crumble if stretched further but his inclusion here will allow self-proclaimed cinephiles to declare him 'embarrassing stunt casting' or the next Laurence Olivier. The insistence is his was the best audition for the role but he’s not that good, for me his casting felt like an indicator of Nolan’s ego as a filmmaker: He can put Harry Styles in his film just because he’s Christopher Nolan.
This is a horrors-of-war film, not a hero-adventure film but it slips up on both; despite setting the scene with a few nameless fatalities and shots of beleaguered men waiting to go home, the whole experience is rather horror free. As bad as things are in Dunkirk, everything ticks from A to B quite nicely. The film also can’t quite resist presenting us with Tom Hardy: Hero of the Skies. Dunkirk may not have dashing heroes saving the day but Hardy’s character, Farrier, comes closest.
Once you remove the conceit of the broken timeline, Dunkirk is actually a conventional and predictable story. It’s messy, with poorly staged action and emotionally aloof to the point of detachment, just a little more about who our characters are might have made it easier to get emotionally onboard with them. The film could have included women more prominently in its narrative and still stayed historically accurate but it chooses not to, which is lazy, especially since the film plays casually with history in other areas for the sake of storytelling. It’s worth watching in IMAX if you have the opportunity to but a standard screening will serve the film’s visuals just as well.
I didn’t hate Dunkirk but it was one of the most flat films I’ve experienced for a long time and, as with much of Nolan’s work, I can’t imagine I’ll be in any rush to watch it again.
Dunkirk is released in the UK on 21st July