Dunkirk (2017) Movie Review: Technical Mastery Triumphs Over Content?

Directed and written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead

Another Nolan Project, another long wait beginning a year back with the 1st announcement trailer, something that has become typical of Nolan’s projects till the audience can bear it no longer and scramble to the theatre when it finally arrives, huffing and puffing, expecting another greatest movie of all time. Such is the Nolan Brand, the auteur for the masses, who has seamlessly blended the esoteric with the commercial.

I was no exception. Having missed a rare opportunity of watching the premiere show (the horror! The horror!), yours truly managed to get seats for the Friday show (Imax no less, cause that’s what the Nolan fans deserve, and need). What followed was 110 minutes (one of Nolan’s shorter films) of celluloid that was a treat for the senses, the director’s technical mastery at the zenith of his powers.

I won’t go into the details of the plot, not due to spoiler alerts, but because there is not much of a plot. Just google Dunkirk to know the plot (one of the less talked about events of World War 2, but one that had as much an influence as Stalingrad, Normandie et al). Nolan decided to give us Dunkirk as it was, stripped of any side stories, character introductions, tragic heroes; just Dunkirk, the evacuation of a million stranded British soldiers from the shores of France back to England to fight the Nazis another day.

There is an almost documentary-like feel to the movie. Nolan eschewed the usual war depictions of valor, tragedy and loss and instead hammers the audience with a visceral depiction and the feeling of experiencing the great escape in real life. Yes, characters are introduced, but no individual clings to the mind, there are no memorable lingering quotes, no exaggerated feeling of heroism or tragedy. There are no sub-plots to relate to each character like the British POWs in the film The Great Escape. This is less of Saving Private Ryan or Platoon and more of The Longest Day. But we nevertheless feel Dunkirk with the soldiers. We feel them on the beach, on the water and on air. Through the lens of the film-maker. We experience the impulsive dread when bombs drop on the helpless soldiers, we see torpedoes coming straight at ships, destroyers being sunk, soldiers jumping off sinking ships, we experience what the pilot experiences in his cockpit, engaging in dog-fights as he tries his best to down the German bomber before it unloads its bombs over another helpless boat.

This is an experiential film in its pure form. The audience is left on their own to find the heroism and the tragedy. Nolan can sometimes be criticized for focusing on plot-devices and technical tricks over story-telling and character development. Yes, barring a few memorable characters like The Joker, we remain inert to the trials and tribulations of Cooper and Murph in Interstellar or Cob and Mal in Inception, as the focus is overwhelmingly on concepts and plot-devices. But, Dunkirk was an unique event in World War 2. It didn’t involve battles, wars or invasions. It was simply an evacuation brought about successfully by common people who came to help their army. There was nothing heroic about the event, no victory to cheer for or tragedy to sympathize. But it was nevertheless a triumph of the collective, where no individual stands out but where every day individuals collectively achieve the incredible. It was an event where victory is just to survive and live. Maybe, Dunkirk is best presented the way it was.

Nolan fans would be only too aware of his fascination playing with multiple story lines and time. How often have we seen this – multiple storylines running in parallel, sometimes across different time-lines, with the film frequently switching across each thread (Memento started it all, followed by The Prestige, Batman Begins, Inception). True to expectation, Nolan found a way to incorporate his trademark style in Dunkirk as well. He explores this underrated event in 3 parallel story threads of varying timelines, through the eyes of the stranded helpless Army (spanning a week), the rescuing Navy (spanning several hours) and the depleted Airforce (spanning 30 minutes), all converging to the climax. The frequently shifting narration between land, water and air seems to justify Churchill’s speech at the end “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.

But this brings us to the question – Is Nolan becoming guilty of focusing too much on his signature plot tricks. It was a brilliantly innovative concept in Memento, a gripping plot device in Inception, but are such devices always required, at the risk of appearing to be a force-fit in Nolan’s new ventures. Dunkirk was expected to be a significant departure from Nolan’s earlier projects, away from science fiction, superheroes and gripping thrillers. While the subject matter is indeed different, the tools used to present them seem repeated.

In conclusion, Dunkirk sees Nolan true to form and at the top of his mastery of the camera and the moving image. Some of the camera-work in the aerial sequences are worthy of watching in Imax. Through his mastery, Nolan makes us experience World War like very few directors have, right in the center of the conflict. The parallel interchanging plot-lines that is so dear to Nolan seemed forced in this movie. Maybe the documentary style of the film made us feel alienated to the characters or left us searching for a good plot. We can argue that Nolan intended Dunkirk to be presented this way. It is probably too much to expect for an experiential film that makes us think long after the movie is over – after all, films like Apocalypse Now are one for a life-time. In the end, the question with which I began the review remains open. I guess it is up to the audience to objectively decide 😊.

My Rating – 8/10

Pathikrit Basu

A self-proclaimed cinephile




Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.