Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The Clone Troopers
As one of relatively few films I have seen in theatres this year and one with a great deal of buzz around it, both good and bad, I feel I might offer my own perspective on the film. In short, I liked it a lot and would consider it to be one of Nolan’s better films, though not in the realm of Inception, Memento, or The Dark Knight. Dunkirk is a simple story about the famous rescue attempt of trapped British soldiers in France during World War II by civilian fishing vessels. The premise is almost uncannily simple, and after seeing the first few trailers, I had concerns that the film would feel tedious. However, the filmmakers took several good turns in structuring the events of the film so that tension remains elevated throughout and though the outcome of the overall rescue is known, the lives of the characters of interest remains uncertain until the end.
The first of the three converging stories introduced is the Week at the Mole subplot, which takes place as the title suggests a week before the rescue on the Dunkirk beach. The mole is an object of some confusion, and though the film addresses it briefly, it is worth me mentioning that the “mole” in question is not an undercover agent but the narrow pier from which the boats depart. The use of atypical terminology applied to a word, especially when one of the word’s homonyms might also fit the context in the audience’s mind, is an oversight on the filmmakers’ part. I didn’t find it distracting, but I went into the film knowing the mole referred to a part of the beach itself, and I feel the dialogue fails to explain this.
This storyline follows a young British soldier and another soldier he finds on the beach in the process of burying a third man. These two make several attempts to escape on the few boats coming in, first by carrying a stretcher onto a medical vessel and later by hiding on the pier and sneaking aboard an incoming rescue ship. In the process, they recruit another soldier whom they rescue during a bombing attempt. Eventually the three British soldiers sneak aboard a stranded fishing boat with a group of Scottish soldiers, riding it out to sea when the tide comes in. The second British soldier is accused of being a spy and reveals that he is French, only to drown when the fishing vessel, by this point riddled with bullet holes, starts to sink.
This is probably the most problematic of the subplots but I find it the most compelling of the three. The main issue is that the characters are very difficult to distinguish, even for people who tend to have a good eye for faces (which I do not). I very much wish one of the British (and French) soldiers had a very different nose or hair color to allow me to more easily place them, but I found clues given by the framing and certain predictable elements of the plot helped me keep the characters straight. The first soldier introduced is the one who defends the French soldier, and the one who reads the paper as the end, which would make sense considering how the film opens with him running through the town. This doesn’t always work out of course – the Frenchman drowns in the boat, but I had to look it up later to be sure he was the one who died.
A lot of the characterization is done through the expressions on the characters faces, as they rarely ever talk to one another, and I found this fascinating. I’ve heard many people complain that these are the least interesting characters in the film, but I strongly disagree. The subtlety of their gestures to one another, the expressiveness of their eyes, the deliberate actions the characters take, like when the one positions himself outside to ensure that he doesn’t get locked in the ship if it’s attacked, all add up to be the most life-like performances of the group, in my opinion.
Part Two: The Talking People
The second plot is the Day at Sea subplot, which follows a fisherman, his son, and a friend of his son who decides to tag along with them as they head to Dunkirk upon request from the Royal Navy. While on the way there, they rescue a traumatized soldier whose ship was sunk by a U-boat, presumably the sole survivor of the attack. The soldier becomes panicked when he realizes they’re heading back to France, accidentally injuring the son’s friend. The injury gets progressively worse, eventually leading to his death during the rescue.
This boat is tied to the other two plots by rescuing the Scottish and British soldiers on the sinking fishing boat from the Mole plotline and one of the downed fighter pilots from the Air plotline. I think most people connect to the Sea subplot because it’s the one that involves the most dialogue — quite a lot, in fact, compared to the near lack of dialogue in most of the rest of the film. I found it compelling, but the boy and his father seem relatively archetypal for my tastes and what they do say does little to inform their character, most of which is given to the father. I honestly think the soldier gets the more interesting part of the story, having to cope with the conflicting environment of the fishing boat that’s both a domestic reminder of safety and a potential war target. He also has to deal with his guilt about injuring the boy, which is momentarily relieved when the other boy lies and tells him he’ll be fine, then surges back at the end of the film when he learns the boy is dead. The only initiative the son takes outside of this lie is when he locks the shell-shocked soldier in a room below deck, a stupid move considering the man doesn’t even want to be below deck at that time and just barely survived drowning in a boat.
The Sea subplot does have a lot of high points, the tensest of which has to be the sinking minesweeper scene. Bombed by the German Luftwaffe, a massive ship starts to turn over, leaking oil into the ocean that not only coats the soldiers the boat’s trying to rescue, but makes the surrounding area extremely flammable. The ship starts to smoke just as the fishing boat is getting full, and it becomes a game of chicken to see how many soldiers the old fisherman can rescue before the oil catches fire. The scene plays out with beautiful cinematography, sharp pacing, and added tension from the first subplot’s characters as their boat wanders into the oily water as well.
Part Three: The Tom Hardy
The third and final subplot is the Hour in the Air, which follows a Spitfire pilot during the last hour before the rescue. In this, three pilots head out to offer some cover from the German bombers that continually assault the beach – planes that are all beautifully shot, and produce easily the most intimidating noise in the film when they dive for their attacks. The leader of the squadron is shot down quickly and the other two engage in dogfights near the fishing vessel. One of the pilots’ fuel gauges is shattered, which is problematic because they only have a few dozen minutes’ worth of fuel, while the other is shot down and crashes in the water. The remaining pilot passes over, assuming him to be all right because he waves from his cockpit, though through the Sea storyline we find that his waving was actually an attempt to open the jammed cockpit door, and he nearly drowns in the process. The remaining pilot runs out of fuel over the beach but manages to glide his plane long enough to offer support to the evacuating troops before landing on the northern stretch of the beach and getting captured by Germans.
This subplot is the most action-packed in the traditional sense, as it involves the only characters with any offensive capabilities, but for that same reason I found it to be the more tedious of the three. It is still well-done and the end of it kind of makes up for its gradual initiation, but the sluggish nature of the dogfights, realistic though they may be, and the lack of personality in the main fighter pilot limit my enjoyment of this part of the story. When I think of characters that lack definition, Tom Hardy’s character is the one that comes to mind. The downed pilot gets a little bit of definition once rescued, as the other soldiers berate him for not being at the beach to keep off the German planes, but even when the two pilots are able to communicate, they don’t talk about anything other than their fuel levels and tactics. I can’t help but feel like this storyline would be more compelling if the second pilot stayed in the air longer and maybe even died in the crash, or if we saw them all prior to taking off talking with one another. Either of these scenarios might give them more opportunity to show their relationships with one another and make the death of the first guy or the capture of the main pilot more impactful.
However, these sections are short and, if nothing else, lovely to watch. For a film that takes place in the glum overcast gray of southern England and northern France, the film is nice to look at, and its sound design is subtle but effective. I enjoyed the film immensely, and though I wouldn’t consider it nearly as watchable as Nolan’s other good films, it is certainly worth a look.