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Dunkirk Movie Review: Not Characters, But Christopher Nolan And Effective Storytelling Make It A Winner

Image: A YouTube grab

Image: A YouTube grab

Nolan’s Dunkirk - his incredible World War II epic - revolves around the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk — when close to 3,30,000 British and Allied forces, encompassed by the enemy, were evacuated in a rather miraculous way and were instantly interpreted as legend by the British press.

Divya Pal

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh

How would you react when you watch a film that neither has a protagonist nor well-defined, sharp characters? In all probability, you’d be a bit impassive and indifferent. But when writer-director Christopher Nolan takes up the challenge, it is done with the sole motive to not just offer a film, but an experience that alone makes it worth seeing. Not necessarily a film with a definite plot, story, character arc, but an experience that lingers in memory.

Nolan’s Dunkirk - his incredible World War II epic - revolves around the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk — when close to 3,30,000 British and Allied forces, encompassed by the enemy, were evacuated in a rather miraculous way and were instantly interpreted as legend by the British press. While Nolan puts forth both - the acutely distressing defense and evacuation of troops - it shows all of it not just through the standpoint of the soldiers left on the beach, but also civilian fleet who evacuated them, and the RAF pilots in the air who did just about everything to shield them.

Since I watched Dunkirk in IMAX (the format filmmaker intended it to be seen), it left an ineradicable impact, especially because even the panoramas looked like flawless close-ups. Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema engineer one of the most intense opening shots I’ve ever witnessed. A team of soldiers walk cautiously along a street. They are surrounded by leaflets – which are essentially warnings sent from German planes to die or surrender. Soon, all die except the survivor, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). Nolan further explains his genius by filming enormous, sweeping individual shots including the plummet of planes and multiple petrifying beach bombardments. While these shots remain with you long after the credits roll, Nolan also manages to achieve what he set out to – ‘offer virtual reality without the goggles’.

Besides Nolan's 1998 feature debut Following, Dunkirk - with the running time of 106 minutes – is the shortest film. That’s because Nolan approaches the story not like a historical episode for which he needs to adhere to the conventions of a war movie. But as a work of art that isn’t just visually engaging, but also leaves an impact with its sounds. We all understand that what had actually transpired at Dunkirk was pretty complex. To ensure his viewers get a clear understanding of events, Nolan divides his film into three separate but intertwining narratives that include – action on the land, the sea, and in the air. While action on land transpires over a week, action on sea take just about a day and air combats in an hour. Even though all this happens in a completely different time frame, Dunkirk makes the experience more enriching, and keeps the viewers on the edge of the seat.

In addition to using less dialogue, Nolan doesn’t spend time on the backstory, but instantly makes us feel what the young soldiers experience as they deal with the thought of impending death and unending terror. It is interesting to see how Nolan is spectacular in making linear leaps in the film so that the viewers understand the same event in multiple ways.

The film’s strength lies in the central performance by Fionn Whitehead as an Army private who gets associated with Aneurin Barnard’s soldier and Harry Styles and tries hard to get off the beach. Their only aim in life is survival, and it’s tough not to be able to connect with them. Mark Rylance as the civilian who’s traveling to Dunkirk to save as many soldiers as he can is impressive too.

Honestly speaking, none of the characters in the film are crucial as individuals because what happens at every moment is far important than how Dunkirk happened.

In a nutshell, Dunkirk isn’t a war film that is made with the objective to flatter viewers with its epicness. But Nolan has indeed been successful in making a different war movie that elicits not just fears, but thoughts as well.

Rating: 4/5


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