Kernel Rating (out of 5): (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 113 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This World War II film isn’t bloody or gory, but is defined by an ever-increasing sense of dread and fear; there are constant bomb attacks from the sky and U-bomb attacks in the sea, and the jarring nature of those are frightening, no matter your age. There is tons of death, morbid images with corpses laid on beaches and in the water, and some cursing. It’s a lot emotionally, and will be too much for younger viewers.
Director Christopher Nolan delivers one of this summer’s most precisely crafted, visually astonishing films in the World War II-set ‘Dunkirk.’ It is simultaneously gorgeous and devastating, and ultimately impossible to forget.
By Roxana Hadadi
For the second week in a row, an unconventional “war” film is the best thing in theaters. On the heels of the surprisingly thoughtful franchise picture “War for the Planet of the Apes,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s World War II-set “Dunkirk” arrives in IMAX and 70mm, formats that capture the mesmerizing, haunting visuals of this film. See it on as large a screen as possible. “Dunkirk” is an immediate addition to the cinematic war-genre canon.
Nolan has a certain reputation crafted by the many things his films—his Batman “Dark Knight” trilogy, the underrated “The Prestige,” the visually sumptuous “Inception,” the space opus “Interstellar”—often have in common. His films are sometimes tricky or overly complicated, with a nonlinear puzzle structure; they’re increasingly long, with “Interstellar” running up to nearly three hours; and they share actors that Nolan clearly likes to work with, including Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy.
But “Dunkirk” breaks from Nolan’s norm in effective ways: shorter than two hours, full of fresh-faced actors (although yes, Hardy and Murphy both show up), and a narrative that is mostly straightforward and jarringly, increasingly tense. There isn’t that much blood and there is certainly no gore, but the scenes Nolan builds are more evocative, more distressing, and more melancholy: thousands of metal soldiers’ helmets littering the sand; the bodies of men floating along the water and returning to the beach as the tide comes back in; a Royal Air Force fighter plane swirling and careening through the air in a deadly dance with an enemy.
Nolan gives all the different elements of this story technical wizardry, precise attention, and genuine respect: the British soldiers on the ground, desperate and waiting to die; the pilots in the air, aware of their responsibility to those helpless soldiers unable to defend themselves against the enemies flying above; and the British civilians inspired to act, to cross the water and reach the French beach in their lifeboats, fishing boats, and pleasure yachts to bring home the young men who had gone to fight for their safety.
In the early summer of 1940, the situation was this: The Axis powers, led by Nazi Germany, had invaded France, and had pushed the French, British, and other Allied armies to the beach of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by German troops. The only way out was to sail away, but the shallow water meant that gigantic British ships and destroyers could only pick up soldiers from one pier—leaving them open to attacks from fighter planes above as they waited to board the ships, and open to assault by U-boats once they were onboard. Ships were sinking and men were dying, and as Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh, of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) says, “Seeing home doesn’t help us get there.”
“Dunkirk” divides its time between the Dunkirk beach, where a British Army private (Fionn Whitehead) is trying to escape; in the air, where Royal Air Force pilots (Jack Lowden and Hardy, of “The Dark Knight Rises”) are patrolling the skies above the beach to shoot down any German planes; and in the water, where mild-mannered mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, of “The BFG”), his son, and his son’s friend save the only remaining soldier (Murphy, of “Tron: Legacy”) of a U-boat attack.
“There’s no hiding from this, son,” Mr. Dawson says to the soldier when he demands they turn around instead of continuing to Dunkirk, and it’s his soft-spoken resolve, his determination to help save anyone who can be saved, that Nolan impresses on viewers.
As masterfully built as “Dunkirk” is, there are problems: the audio mixing is way off, and combined with characters’ British, Irish, or Scottish accents, means that dialogue throughout is unintelligible; the pacing drags a bit during the beach-set storyline. But the score, with its evocation of a ticking clock and alarm sirens, pitches in to keep the tension building in spite of those other technical shortcomings.
The World War II British slogan “Keep calm and carry on” has become a cultural cliché of sorts, but you could argue that Nolan has taken that expression and made a whole feature film about it—about the kinds of things men do to survive, the best of it and the worst of it, and the loneliness and trauma that occur so quickly and so irreversibly. Winston Churchill’s famous speech after the Dunkirk evacuation—“We shall go on to the end … We shall never surrender”—is quoted here, and Nolan shows the promise and threat of that statement in the evocative, harrowing “Dunkirk.”
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