Movie Review: “Dunkirk”, Starring Sir Kenneth Branagh
*CAUTION, SPOILERS AHEAD*
From the opening shot, the tone of Dunkirk is clear. Young men walk the abandoned streets of Dunkirk, France, the silence echoing as the first strains of Hans Zimmer’s superb score begin, and we are transported to WWII. The fear is palpable, both in the young men – including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) – and for the audience. Nolan sets the uneasiness with shaking hands, the soft flapping of ominous falling flyers, and silence. Silence is a recurring element in this film. Combined with the cinematography, it is the most genuine way to portray the complex emotions that seep through it. Little dialogue is spoken throughout. In fact, we don’t even learn most characters’ names in the film at all. But what is said always has you gripping the edge of your seat.
We are first introduced to a small group of soldiers on the beach. Tommy is joined by a young soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), racing to get a wounded man to a ship just before it pushes off. It is there we see a very familiar face portraying Commander Bolton, Sir Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart in Chamber of Secrets), in a rare kind of role that he excels at: staunch, determined, and yet wholly aware of the situation and each man who crowds the dock. Branagh brings a humanity to this commander role. Alex (portrayed by Harry Styles, a casting choice many are curious to see) is saved by Tommy from the ship threatening to crush him. Styles brings a sharpness to the film that no other character does, and though he’s a newcomer, he brings plenty of emotion and rawness to the role. Keep an eye out as well for a small role played by Kevin Guthrie – or as we know him, Abernathy from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!
From there, the second timeline unwinds in the skies over the course of one hour. Two Royal Airforce pilots, Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), take to the air. Real era planes and detailed replicas were used, and I was delighted to see the pilots actually navigating as they would have in the day. Tom Hardy shines here and truly is the hero Dunkirk deserves (if you’ll pardon the Dark Knight Rises pun), portraying both fear and control – all with most of his face covered.
And then we get to what is the heart of the film: the sea. We’re introduced to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they ready a small pleasure yacht to sail across the English Channel and rescue soldiers. Rylance commands these scenes in his soft spoken way, and Glynn-Carney and Keoghan serve as hopeful foils to the fearful young men on the beach. On their way, they meet a nameless soldier (Cillian Murphy), who seems to be the lone survivor of a sunken ship. They take him aboard and quickly see signs that the soldier is suffering from “shell shock,” as it was known at the time. This examination of all of the horrors of war is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Cillian Murphy is an amazing actor, but he really does an incredible job here, capturing the complexity of the condition with the simplest of facial and body movements.
Slowly, the three timelines begin to weave together. Nolan does an excellent job of letting his viewer do the analysis and timing for themselves. Each line weaves its way until the climax of the film, where all three converge into a moment that symbolizes the entirety of the rescue operation. The film never shies away from taking the horror, heroism, guilt, anxiety, anger, or confusion of war head on, and the narrative never asks the viewer to judge or condemn any of these things.
At once expansive and intimate, Dunkirk is a shining achievement. This film is filled from start to finish with action and emotion. The actors and crew did an incredible job of making you feel like you were actually there in their shoes. It’s an amazing story that was beautifully told. Christopher Nolan and the entire crew have outdone themselves in this feat.