“Dunkirk” is the latest film from “Inception”, “Interstellar” and “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan - the man who’s brought us mind-bending, dramatic and complex stories of bravery and adventure. “Dunkirk” may be Nolan’s simplest film to date. At an hour and 46 minutes it’s definitely one of his shortest, with a screenplay of only 76 pages.
Nolan puts his stamp on the 1940 WWII battle with three storylines that intersect and intertwine - multiple times - back and forth in time - over a one-week period. This was really the only way Nolan could infuse some creativity into “Dunkirk” without tampering with the historical subject matter. It also gives his audience a feel for the confusion of events, which all the players in this real-life drama were experiencing.
The first plotline involves British soldiers forced by German troops onto France’s Dunkirk beach. They’re surrounded and stranded. A desperate Commander Bolton (played by Kenneth Branagh) says he can almost see home from where he stands, but without a miracle, there’s no way of getting there.
The second is the civilian story. Mark Rylance is excellent as a father and amateur sailor. He’s one of hundreds who responded to the request by the British government, to sail across the English Channel, and into the war, to rescue the soldiers stuck on the beach. He’s joined by his son and a family friend.
And the third involves a pair of pilots (the main one played by Tom Hardy) whose job it is to shoot down the enemy planes before they can bomb what’s left of the British fleet and the soldiers awaiting rescue. Three stories - by land, by sea and by air. “Dunkirk” is almost entirely a story of heroism, spotlighting the risks, rewards, failure, and sacrifice that often come with it.
Nolan’s choice to never show the face of the enemy is a good one. His trademark visual style is naturally toned-down here, though we do get some cool camera angles, especially during the aerial sequences. This isn’t a very intense or graphic war film. There are some energized moments of combat and suspense, but “Dunkirk” is actually more of a character study, with minimal dialogue.
Even with a Hans Zimmer score, “Dunkirk” at times feels a little too quiet, briefly allowing your mind to wander with the waves of the sea. Thankfully the believable ensemble, which also includes Cillian Murphy and, yes, popstar Harry Styles, always brings you back to the moment.
“Dunkirk” is not a special film, but I think Nolan met his goals of honoring those who rose to the occasion during this pivotal, yet relatively unknown chapter of World War II - and showing that everyone can play a key role when the cause is just.