“Dunkirk” dramatizes the pivotal evacuation in 1940 of more than 330,000 Allied soldiers from Nazi-occupied France. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film is an intensely involving thick-of-the-action war thriller and a knockout big-screen experience.
This very British story, presented big-budget, Hollywood style, is the first history-themed drama directed by Nolan, the sci-fi and fantasy maestro whose credits include “Memento,” “Interstellar” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy. At the same time, it contains familiar Nolan elements, such as storytelling that busts the conventional portrayal of time.
It is May 1940, and, with the Nazi sweep through France, about 400,000 Allied soldiers are trapped on the beaches of the French town of Dunkirk, in a ticking-clock situation. Under way is an evacuation effort involving the use of British navy ships and civilian boats to transport these troops across the channel to England.
Nolan immerses the audience in the action of the mission, presenting it from three points of view — land, sea and air.
The three stories exist in different time frames, taking place over the course of a week, a day, and an hour, respectively.
On land, a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) survives a Nazi sniper attack and runs through the streets to the beach. A British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) is overseeing the arrival of the evacuation ships and boats. In survival mode, Tommy and another soldier masquerade as medics in order to board a departing ship.
At sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian, is heading for France in his small yacht, to assist the evacuation. His young-adult son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a cluelessly eager 17-year-old friend (Barry Keoghan) join him.
In the sky, Farrier (Tom Hardy), a senior RAF pilot with a broken fuel gauge, engages in dogfights with German planes and helps protect the rescue boats below.
Compared to “Saving Private Ryan,” “Apocalypse, Now” and Lu Chan’s Chinese masterpiece “City of Life and Death,” the film lacks scope, sweep and a sense of tragedy, as grade-A war films go.
As has previously occurred when Nolan plays with time, clarity sometimes suffers in “Dunkirk.”
Additionally, Nolan’s driving desire to present immediate and urgent action comes at the expense of the bigger picture. The film barely addresses the historical significance of the largely successful Dunkirk evacuation, which allowed Britain to avoid surrendering to Hitler, for example.
But the action Nolan delivers, in a tight 107 minutes, contains one credible and compelling life-or-death moment after another. The movie is a visceral rush of horror, confusion, fear and courage.
Nolan additionally illustrates the survival mechanism at work, and how the war-zone experience can heighten or warp perception.
A combination of Imax and 65mm cinematography results in superb visual material — horrific, intimate and spectacular.
Hans Zimmer’s score even includes a ticking watch.
A-list and newcomer actors, who have little dialogue (or back stories), often convey emotion solely with their eyes.
All succeed, but special mention goes to Whitehead’s Tommy, whose mixture of fear and determination in the opening scene sets the movie’s tone, and Rylance, whose civilian skipper suggests quiet dignity like no other.
Three and a half stars
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Running time 1 hour, 47 minutes