Writer/Director Christopher Nolan, the British-born wunderkind responsible for a string of commercially successful meg-hits (3 Batman movies, Interstellar and Inception among them) leaves nuanced comic book heroes and brilliantly imagined science fiction behind him to revisit the WW II military engagement that has transfixed the imagination of military historians for nearly ¾ quarters of a century—the evacuation, of British troops from the beaches of a small town in Northern France called Dunkerque in the late spring of 1940.
Armed with a small army of craft/technical support and an apparently unlimited budget, Nolan succeeds in conveying the enormity of this event…but without giving his audience individual characters with sufficient depth to match the gargantuan production values of his film.
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, (whose visual imagination matched Nolan’s contributions as writer/director on Interstellar) opens Dunkirk by following a single foot soldier as he retreats through the crowded streets of the small seaside community to find himself on the town’s vulnerable and hopelessly overcrowded beaches where nearly 400,000 exhausted British troops line up for seaborne rescues which seem as unlikely as they are lethally dangerous.
Yet despite their vulnerability to bombing and strafing by German aircraft and facing tidal ebbs and surges that render boarding British military vessels nearly impossible, the beleaguered men are snatched from near total obliteration by an armada of small U.K. pleasure craft dispatched to pick up anyone able to scramble on board these makeshift troop carriers. The effort took nearly a week to complete, aided in no small part by the German army’s inexplicable decision to select a 3-day siege effort rather than continue to press their advantage to the sea’s edge.
Any effort to convey the magnitude of the evacuation would require brilliant camerawork and superb sound editing- the latter provided by Nolan colleague Lee Smith – and in these categories, Dunkirk succeeds brilliantly, conveying a sense of pulse-stopping claustrophobia amid the vulnerable panorama of crowded beaches, desperate men and an angry sea unwilling to make the task of escaping alive anything other than nearly impossible to achieve.
Dunkirk compellingly delivers an overpowering sense of the apparent hopelessness of the situation, but the film’s examination of the human dimension of this event lie buried in repetitious images of combat causalities and drowning victims without sufficient personal detail to balance their individual destinies against the rampant destruction surrounding them. Despite the presence of a number of the U. K. ’s most distinguished actors, (Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, & Cillian Murphy) the movie’s cast never comes to life as individuals, making Dunkirk’s running time seem longer than the 107 minutes actually taken to tell its story.
That said, Dunkirk’s scope and visual brilliance make this one a sure success at the box-office a treat for filmgoers drawn to the movie’s visual power and a challenge to future filmmakers in terms of its technical sophistication.
The Verdict? Immense in scope and telling visual detail, but curiously lacking in subtle, emotional impact.
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