The opening title card for Christopher Nolan’s World War II film explains that the 400,000 British and French soldiers trapped by advancing Germans on the Dunkirk beach in June, 1940, were hoping for “a miracle” and “deliverance.” An eager viewer might read that and hope that he’s about to experience a cinematic miracle—a serious, even profound epic in the midst of the summer popcorn movie glut of superhero extravaganzas and raunchy comedies. But after nearly two hours, he might just settle for deliverance from the theatre because, unhappily, “Dunkirk” is a disappointment, a visual marvel but one lacking in emotional resonance, the sort of film one respects for its craftsmanship—but feels distanced from.
Not that the intent behind the film—to celebrate real-life heroism, as well as sacrifice, while not overlooking incompetence—isn’t an admirable one, or that Nolan’s storytelling method isn’t intriguing. His tactic is to convey the overall urgency of the Dunkirk operation, but not to try to cover the entire triumph-out-of-debacle arc it represented in Britain’s early war effort. Rather he surveys it from three perspectives—land (the thousands on the beach), air (dogfights between British and German planes) and sea (the flotilla of private boats making their way across the Channel to rescue the trapped men). In each case he focuses on a small group—a couple of grunts trying to make their way onto departing Navy vessels, a squadron of Spitfires taking on dive-bombing Stukas, and a doughty English yachtsman and two youngsters, one his son, making their way across the sea to the beach—and then shuttles back and forth among them to give an impression of the whole, protracted affair through a series of interlocked vignettes rather than painting a single broad canvas.
The film begins with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a private and the only one of a group of English soldiers to survive an attack by advancing Germans as they walk through the deserted town of Dunkirk. Scrambling over the barricades still manned by French troops, he makes his way to the beach where long lines of men stand, waiting their turn to cross the long dock—the mole—and board one of the few naval ships called into service for the evacuation. He and another private, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), commandeer a stretcher with a wounded man and carry it through the hordes to the vessel, hoping to leapfrog their comrades for passage. But they are ordered off, which turns out to be good fortune, as the ship is shortly sunk by an enemy bomb. They will then link up with another private, Alex (Harry Styles) and a suspiciously quiet fourth man (Damien Bonnard), as well as a few others, to take refuge in a beached hulk that they hope will eventually be carried out to sea by the advancing tide. Meanwhile chief naval officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and chief army officer Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) attempt to maintain order and bolster morale while privately bemoaning the situation.
On the other side of the Channel, weekend captain Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) does not wait for his boat to be requisitioned for emergency duty: he and his handsome son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), set sail for Dunkirk. Along the way they pick up a lone survivor (Cillian Murphy) from the floating wreckage of a bombed ship; the traumatized man insists that they should turn around and return to England, terrified of returning to combat.
Dawson also rescues another Brit—Spitfire pilot Collins (Jack Lowden), one of the small number airmen ordered into the fray with strict instructions to preserve enough fuel to make it back to England. Shot down over the sea, he is saved by Dawson when his cockpit cover refuses to open and he comes perilously close to sinking to the bottom with the plane. But his colleague Farrier (Tom Hardy) will continue the mission against orders, shooting down enemy craft until he runs out of fuel.
The endlessly shifting focus among these three intersecting POVs is architecturally impressive, but it frequently results in a lack of clarity about precisely when and where something is happening, or even why. At one point, for instance, the men huddling in the beached boat are fired upon, with bullet holes penetrating the hull as those inside scramble to protect themselves. Presumably they’re being shot at by Germans, but since Nolan scrupulously avoids showing them, here and elsewhere—in fact, his opening title card merely refers to the troops being surrounded by “The Enemy”—that’s not obvious. It could be their comrades engaged in some offhanded target practice. The intent, here and elsewhere, is presumably to convey the fog of war, but too often it’s difficult to distinguish between the fog of war and the fog of Nolan’s narrative technique, and you have to intuit what’s going on rather than actually experiencing it.
The film’s scope is also a variable thing. Some of the visuals are staggeringly impressive, most notably the beach sequences, with swarms of men on the sand and crowded onto the mole. But in other instances the images are less convincing. Toward the end of the film, for example, Dawson’s boat finally reaches Dunkirk, but one glimpses only a few other skiffs along with his, not the armada of hundreds the operation required; and then abruptly the evacuation (which actually continued for eight days) is all over, with Branagh’s character simply proclaiming its success, followed by scenes of soldiers being welcomed back to England and Churchill’s famous words about never surrendering being read from a newspaper account by Tommy. The film’s highly limited perspective is maintained, but at a cost.
The greater loss in Nolan’s approach, however, is a lack of character development. Simply put, all the figures are little more than sketches, types more than fully rounded individuals, and they’re played as such by a cast that come to seem more like pieces on Nolan’s complicated cinematic chess board than real people, with the result that the film strives to manipulate our emotions, rather crudely at that, instead of truly moving us. Rylance, for one, is a formidable actor, but even in his able hands Dawson is pretty much just the epitome of British stiff-upper-lip determination. (Even a sudden, tragic death extracts only a stifled sense of regret from him.) As for Hardy, he’s stuck with another role in a Nolan film that he must play wearing a mask for most of the duration (surely this must be a source of amusement between the two men), and as a result his expressivity is limited. Whitehead and Barnard manage to invest their characters with a bit more nuance, and Murphy provides a compelling, if one-note, image of shell-shocked terror, but none of them gets beyond a fleeting grace note. As for all the men on the beach, they’re depicted pretty much as an undifferentiated mass. Occasionally one or another of them will shout an expression of anger, but for the most part they’re limited to cheering on cue, waving their arms, as Farrier’s lone Spitfire downs another Stuka.
That’s where the central strength of “Dunkirk” lies—in the combat sequences, which are presented with formidable technical skill. The scenes of bombed naval vessels going down as men thrash about trying to escape have visceral impact, and the initial sequence of Tommy’s feverish run through Dunkirk’s streets is both frightening and exciting, as is that of Collins’ rescue from his sinking Spitfire. One can’t help but be amazed by the look of Nathan Crowley’s production design and the work of the effects teams headed by Andrew Jackson and Scott Fisher, all enhanced by Hoyte van Hoytema’s expansive cinematography and Lee Smith’s editing, with Hans Zimmer’s throbbing score, which booms away like a ticking time bomb, adding to the threat of imminent disaster.
In the end, however, the undeniably proficient, often astoundingly immersive visual achievement is not enough, even on the huge IMAX screen (or, probably, the 70mm showings Nolan has insisted upon). “Dunkirk” proves less than the sum of its many technically accomplished, intricately-arranged but emotionally stunted parts. One might be tempted to rework Churchill’s own words about the historic evacuation and apply them to the film, recalling the opening title card as a springboard: despite its virtues, one should be careful not to apply to a viewer’s deliverance the attributes of a cinematic victory.