In 1940, near the start of World War II, the Allied forces suffered a tremendous defeat against German forces in the town of Dunkirk in France. Subsequently, 300,000 soldiers would be evacuated by military and civilian watercraft, but the losses were nearly immeasurable. It's a harrowing tale not known to many who aren't WWII buffs before now, but in Christopher Nolan's sprawling yet concisely told Dunkirk, we see the tragic events play out with a relentless pace and attention to detail.
We follow three main narratives; that of soldiers stranded on a beach waiting for rescue over the period of a week, an hour in the lives of British fighter pilots, and a single day for a civilian pleasure yacht captain who helps retrieve said soldiers alongside his son and his son's friend. Nolan presents an off-kilter look at each timeline, weaving in and out of the stories, though Dunkirk never feels disjointed. Rather, as bits and pieces from each angle are revealed, we begin to understand the incredible scope of the evacuation and just how lucky the survivors really were, though we're faced with some hard truths before the credits roll.
It is, in fact, somewhat rare to see a mainstream film that deviates from the cinematic formula, but Nolan doesn't let up for an instant. From the terrifying desperation of those stranded on the beach to a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy of Netflix series Peaky Blinders as well as Nolan's Batman films) too broken to return to battle and a selfless dogfighter (Tom Hardy) barely hobbling along in the sky, dialogue becomes sparse compared to the frantic reality of sinking ships, dropped shells and the cruelty of the human survival instinct.
Of course, there are only so many times you can see a bunch of soldiers abandon a ship, and the jarring nature of the heaving seas becomes nearly as difficult to watch as the violence. Still, moving performances from Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh—not to mention a surprisingly natural turn from Harry Styles (yeah, from One Direction)—remain a joy to watch, and the utter unfairness and brutality of war hang heavy over every last scene. This isn't just one of the best war movies in recent memory, it's one that will no doubt be shown in schools and referred to forever as an artful depiction of one of the ugliest chapters in human history. Just do yourselves a favor and pop into the Jean Cocteau Cinema for the 35mm version, a form in which Nolan intended the film to be seen. It's worth it.
+ Relentless yet beautiful
- Lots of people jumping off ships
Directed by Nolan
With Murphy, Hardy, Rylance, Branagh and Styles
Jean Cocteau Cinema, Violet Crown, R, 106 min.