by Hope Madden
Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest imaginations in film, takes on a WWII epic – the truly amazing evacuation of 400,000 British troops from certain death on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.
Nolan = epic, yes. His career is marked by complicated ideas, phenomenal visual style and inventiveness, ever-increasing running times and head-trippery. So, if you’re prepared for a long, bombastic, serpentine, heady adventure, you are not prepared for Dunkirk.
Though the word epic still fits.
Nolan’s storytelling is simultaneously grand and intimate. To do the story justice, he approaches it from three different perspectives and creates, with a disjointed chronology, a lasting impression of the rescue that a more traditional structure might have missed.
The great Mark Rylance brings in the perspective of the courageous Brits who manned their pleasure boats and headed toward the beleaguered troops to ferry them to safety.
From the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden offer the view (literally and figuratively) of the RAF, undermanned and outgunned, maneuvering to end as much of the carnage as possible while the evac takes place.
And on the ground amongst those desperate for removal is young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the actor with the most screen time and quite possibly the fewest lines. He’s the reminder that these soldiers were heroes – flawed, brave, terrified and young.
The cast is appropriately huge, including a surprisingly restrained Kenneth Branagh as well as James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney and, of course, One Direction’s Harry Styles (who commits himself respectably).
Solid performances abound without a single genuine flaw to point out, but the real star of Dunkirk is Nolan.
Talk about restraint. He dials back the score – Hans Zimmer suggesting the constant tick of a time bomb or the incessant roar of a distant plane engine – to emphasize the urgency and peril, and generating almost unbearable tension.
Visually, Nolan’s scope is breathtaking, oscillating between the gorgeous but terrifying open air of the RAF and the claustrophobic confines of a boat’s hull, with the threat of capsize and a watery grave constant.
What the filmmaker has done with Dunkirk – and has not done with any of his previous efforts, however brilliant or flawed – is create a spare, quick and simple film that is equally epic.