Dunkirk Doesn’t Work

Movie Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s war movie about the ‘miracle’ at Dunkirk fights itself on the beaches, in the air and on the seas; it never surrenders a strand of storyline in its desire to go big.



Starring: Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy and Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Running time: 1 hr 46 miins

MPAA Rating: PG-13

By Katherine Monk

Dunkirk does not work. It’s sad to admit, given how important the story is, and how deeply it’s rooted in the English psyche. Yet, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious attempt to tell the human story behind a pivotal chapter in history falls apart quickly, leaving a debris field of half-scorched war movie cliches and some leaden, empty moments delivered by a talented and respectable cast.

How could so much talent, noble intention and pure cinematic craft go so wrong? Probably because Nolan was trying to do too much.

Eager to capture the “Dunkirk Spirit” that defines the stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on British identity, Nolan tries to show us the great evacuation of the French beaches from three different perspectives: land, sea and air.

It’s a solid idea on paper, allowing Nolan to offer three different perspectives on the action: The retreating Allied soldiers struggling to stay alive as they fight against German artillery and air strikes, the Royal Air Force’s brave dogfights against the looming Luftwaffe, and the ordinary civilians who answered the call for help and sailed a flotilla of ‘small ships’ into a war zone, rescuing hundreds of thousands soul by soul.

Eager to capture the “Dunkirk Spirit” that defines the stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on British identity, Nolan tries to show us the great evacuation of the French beaches from three different perspectives: land, sea and air.

It’s this last element — the everyday Britons who joined the fight — that makes Dunkirk the humanitarian “miracle” it’s become. It’s where any director can score the biggest points with his or her audience by making them participants in an epic war story, a place normally reserved for the leading man with the strong jaw and a matter-of-fact American drawl.

Nolan doesn’t neglect this beating heart of the whole drama. He creates a character symbolic of the brave, common spirit in Mr. Dawson. He wears tweed trousers, he utters lines such as “those are Rolls-Royce Merlin engines… Spitfire… the best plane ever made,” and he’s played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). Rylance had the power to make us sympathize with an enemy spy, and he also has the power to convey all the crazy nobility it takes to power up a wooden pleasure yacht and steam toward apocalyptic plumes of black smoke.

That’s the poke into the solar plexus that Dunkirk could have — probably should have — perfected: the beautiful selflessness of it all. It’s what makes us cry with neither joy, nor sadness, but a heart swollen with human potential.

Nolan has a finger on this pulse, but he gets distracted by his other narratives, all taking place in different time frames — creating an almost incomprehensible edit that, by design, fragments any sense of emotional integrity inherent in each arc.

There were moments in this film where I had absolutely no sense of time, place or even the enemy. One moment, we’re flying along on a sortie with Spitfires lead by Tom Hardy — again, wearing a mask that covers half his face — and the next, we’re watching Kenneth Branagh condense the events of an entire battle into a single sentence, with appropriate gravitas, as well as a perfectly executed ‘brave smile.’

There were moments in this film where I had absolutely no sense of time, place or even the enemy…

The ordinary soldiers — played by heartthrob Harry Styles, newcomer Fionn Whitehead and a host of handsome others — feel like half-sketched characters on Titanic. In that regard, they may as well be human set decoration, because Nolan takes time blowing stuff up and sinking real ships. All of it looks authentic, but at this stage, that’s almost a disappointment: everything looks so small.

Through all the real smoke and practical effects, the ‘acting’ became palpable. Nolan’s self-penned script is the real culprit because in its bid for detail, it lacks context. And in its bid for scope, it loses focus. Each performance unfolds in isolation, as though he’s made three different movies and tried to sew them all into one big war epic by throwing characters together through awkwardly plotted encounters.

In his defence, this is part and parcel of the genre — along with cheap intercuts for suspense and an oppressive soundtrack to make the audience feel besieged on a subconscious level.

Dunkirk knows all the war movies that came before it, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now.

Nolan’s film conjures some of its predecessors best moments, offering realistic battle footage, dramatic aerials and the purely surreal sensation of war itself — with all its panic, chaos and life-affirming adrenaline.

Yet, for all the heroic effort, there is no heroic result.

Dunkirk pulls itself apart on the beaches, in the air, and on the seas. It never surrenders a single strand of storyline so the others may survive. Indeed, it is not Their Finest (Hour) — a 2016 film starring Bill Nighy, Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin that featured a cast of actors presenting a propaganda film about Dunkirk. Nighy played an actor, playing a brave Briton who takes his son and his yacht to the beaches of France.

His faux performance prompted more tears than Rylance’s strangely reserved sail. Director Lone Scherfig and Nighy captured the “Dunkirk Spirit” because they weren’t trying to go big. They knew the whole story of Dunkirk was all about the small — the little ships and ordinary folk that saved the British army.

Nolan can’t be faulted for trying in this very noble attempt, but in the very act of trying to turn Dunkirk into widescreen blockbuster, he neglects the central message: salvation can only be delivered on a human scale.


40 Facts About Dunkirk and archival footage from the Express.

Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers
THE EX-PRESS, July 21, 2017

Read Katherine Monk’s movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and here on the The Ex-Press archive.



Review: Dunkirk

User Rating

3 (27 Votes)



Christopher Nolan brings some big-time blockbuster sensibilities to the great evacuation that defined the unsinkable British psyche in wartime, but for all his ambition and the talents of his manly cast that includes Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh, the movie entirely misses the mark as it loses the human element in a mess of authentic re-enactments and contrived plotting. -- Katherine Monk

1 Reply to "Dunkirk Doesn't Work"

  • Christine Terry August 6, 2017 (4:45 pm)

    I agree. I also could not understand about 80% of the dialogue, esp. from the pilots with their mouths covered. And the music was way too loud. It ruined the movie for me.

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