Christopher Nolan has a distinct knack for sending actors hurtling in front of gamboling cameras, across multiple planes of scenery or existence, while keeping the action and audience oriented firmly towards the storytelling. He did it, most notably, with Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, lobbing the actor and his costars through time, space, elevators, and dreams, while maintaining a steady hand on the film’s looping narrative.
In Dunkirk (★★★★), the filmmaker trains his masterful eye on World War II, in the late spring of 1940, devising with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar) brutal new ways to sink ships, and plunge gallant seamen and soldiers into danger. There’s plenty of danger to go around, as tens of thousands of Allied troops from Britain, France, and Belgium, having been chased back by the Nazis to the northern coast of France, wait on the beaches of Dunkirk to be evacuated to safety.
Until the Queen’s Navy destroyers can cruise in to ship the men back across the Channel, they huddle on the sand by the dozens, lined up and down the rickety mole that juts into Dunkirk’s windswept harbor. Dejected, cold, and desperate, they mass at the shore, like seals surrounded by sharks, ripe for picking off by the Germans’ deadly air raids and U-boat attacks.
Throughout this frightening real-life ordeal, Nolan weaves multiple tales of military men, and boys, trying to survive the onslaught and make it home. Some climb over each other in line for the lifeboats, and others, like resourceful young soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), choose valor as their ticket to escape.
The two scramblers, strangers to one another, grab a wounded man on a stretcher and rush him up the mole, attempting to gain entry to an evacuating ship. But, as Nolan depicts with terrifying intimacy, even making it onto a ship is no sure key to survival when U-boat torpedoes are sending countless men to watery deaths. As one soldier tells another, “Survival’s not fair.”
In the skies above, Royal Air Force pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fight for some fairness for the outgunned men below, but their mission seems like a constant upward climb. Amidst such danger and catastrophe, and a few craven acts of cowardice, the story is defined by the many heroic rescues and daring sacrifices, edited for maximum suspense by Lee Smith and propelled by Han Zimmer’s spirited score.
For dramatic measure, drawn into the fray is the small pleasure cruiser Moonstone and its three-man crew — the boat’s owner, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teen-aged son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan), a brave, cherubic stowaway. The Moonstone is just one among a fleet of intrepid fishing boats, trawlers, and sporting craft who answer the Navy’s call for civilian boats to hurry across from England to Dunkirk, to help retrieve stranded sons, fathers, and brothers.
When the Moonstone plucks one shipwrecked, shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the sea, he insists they ignore the Navy’s call to help and speed west towards home, his fellow soldiers be damned. The crew’s decency is tested terribly, in a fashion that builds as much suspense as any of the dogfights between careening British Spitfires and the German Luftwaffe. Nolan keeps the suspense-meter in the red from start to finish, lacing the proceedings with incisive ethical points, and taking time to convey the impact and damage of nearly every bomb and bullet.
The action, fragmented among several overlapping points of view, falls prey to Nolan’s habit of re-shaping time onscreen to further complicate those moral quandaries. The twist in chronology is subtle, yet it deepens the film’s portrayal of survival instinct.
The director indulges in another previously-employed device: strapping a mask across Tom Hardy’s handsome mug for the bulk of his screen time. Emoting admirably with just his eyes, and at least more audible than when he portrayed Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, fighter pilot Hardy remains strapped in his cockpit, where he supplies some of the picture’s most rousing moments. Rylance, Glynn-Carney, Keoghan, and Murphy make riveting drama of the self-contained battle of wills aboard the Moonstone.
It’s newcomer Whitehead, however, who truly leads this sprawling, high-testosterone cast. Through Tommy’s keen eyes, we witness both hope and carnage: bodies floating around him one second, the celebrated arrival of a rescue, the next. War is terrible, and combat is relentless. For an hour and forty minutes, Dunkirk grips and doesn’t let go. The evacuation might have succeeded, but the war raged on.
Dunkirk is rated PG-13, and opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 21. Worth catching in IMAX if you can. Visit Fandango.com.
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