Saw Christopher Nolan’s movie in Hong Kong on Sunday. I watched it in IMAX and recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible.
The story is made up of three threads. There is that set on the beach, which takes place over a week and has Fionn Whitehead’s private trying to make it onto a boat that won’t get torpedoed by a U-boat or bombed by the Luftwaffe and Kenneth Brannagh’s commander trying to get as many troops home safely as possible.
The second thread is set on the sea and takes place over a day. It involves a civilian pleasure boat skippered by Mark Rylance who has volunteered to try to transport British and French troops back across the channel. Early on they pick up a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy who wants to turn back.
The third thread, set in the air, takes place over an hour. In this pat, Tom Hardy is the lead as the British spitfires seek to thwart the Luftwaffes’ attempt to pick off the British destroyers and men stranded on the beach.
Unlike the 1958 “Dunkirk”, where Richard Attenbrough’s character goes from war profiteer to selfless hero, there is little characterization. Only one character has a bit of backstory revealed (he lost a son at the start of the war). There is also very little dialogue. Harry Styles, in a solid acting debut, has the most lines and one of them is a stinker that no actor could have delivered well.
Most strikingly for the twenty-first century, there is little blood and guts. I found this refreshing. I have always thought that the last scene in the 1930 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is immeasurably more powerful than the opening of “Saving Private Ryan” because what you leave out is as important as what you put in.
The real star of this movie, what makes it utterly gripping from start to finish, is Hans Zimmer’s score. The fast part has the pulse of a ticking timebomb – think the first scene in “The Dark Knight”. The slow part seems to be a variation on “Nimrod” by Edward Elgar, which fits well with the stiff-upper-lip English stoicism that the movie celebrates.
With this movie, I think Nolan can finally be mentioned in the same breath as Stanley Kubrick. It is never clever or virtuosic for its own sake, and really puts the audience in the shoes of the terrified schoolboys who helped save Western civilization.