I suppose I should come clean at the outset and say that war movies are not my thing, WW2 movies in particular. But I am a fan of Chrisopher Nolan as a director and I thought if anyone could make a war film I would enjoy, it would be him.
Sadly, Dunkirk is not that movie.
There are things the film gets right. I grew up hearing stories of the war from my grandfather (he had a heart condition so served in the Home Guard not overseas) and he, like so many of his generation, always talked about the Dunkirk evacuation like a great victory. Even when we studied the war at school, teachers never quite admitted it was a monumental defeat. Nolan’s film doesn’t sugarcoat it. none of that “spirit of England” crap. From the very first scene he shows how desperate the men were, trapped between the German army and the sea with no escape. That sense of terror is well drawn and the slow loss of humanity among desperate men. Yes.
But the film does a poor job of making me care about most of the characters I should be rooting for. It’s split into three threads: those trapped on the beach awaiting rescue, two Spitfire pilots providing air cover for the evacuation and the civilian boats that headed to Dunkirk to help. In only one of these were the characters drawn well enough for me to care about them, and that was the civilian boat. A characteristically understated performance from Mark Rylance as the old boat owner determined to do his part creates a solid foundation for the other three characters aboard: George (Barry Keoghan) is the boy too young to fight who wants to be useful, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) is the deckhand and together they rescue an unnamed soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the wreckage of a ship. He freaks out when he realises they are headed to Dunkirk (that much is in the trailer) and the tragic result truly carries the film.
There is one other moment worth highlighting, and it’s this exchange between Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander and James d’Arcy’s character who I think was an Army officer
“What do you see?”
Simple, but Branagh truly sells the emotion of that moment.
As for the rest, Tom Hardy is absolutely wasted as the Spitfire pilot – why cast an actor of his calibre in a role where the plane does most of the acting? Harry Styles is okay, but forgettable.
I appreciate Nolan’s fondness for practical effects but Dunkirk calls for truly grand scale and this film doesn’t have it. A little CGI to give a sense of what 330,000 men crowded onto a beach looks like would have been welcome. Instead, in one of the few wide shots of lines of men waiting for the boats I swear they look like kids queuing for a donkey ride.
And the music is awful! I usually love Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks but here I found it grating and intrusive. I’m not sure if it’s the music itself or the sound mixing…Maybe a bit of both but it’s horrid.
No Nolan movie is truly bad but Dunkirk is disappointing.