Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) is undoubtedly an impressive piece of filmmaking, with well crafted cinematography, sparse dialogue in the face of the very intense situation and incredible scale to capture the enormity of the famous retreat. It’s not without its flaws though and where a number of other review write-ups are incredibly gushing, it feels like the reverential standpoint might be influenced by the weight of the setting and the number of British stars that feature in the film.
The story itself is hard fault, especially with its historical backdrop and timeline, but it does struggle to build a fourth wall relationship because of the huge scale of human life on the balance. With so many men on the beaches of Dunkirk it’s tough to become entwined with the lives of the few that it focuses on. This isn’t helped by the characterisation in the film with little in the way of dialogue to open up the characters to the audience and draw you in to their desperate situation.
What dialogue there is in Dunkirk is often frosty, but it can also become clunky and there’s the occasional cheesy line to trip things up. However, the biggest issue is that there’s a feeling of it all being scripted, which takes away from the belief in the characters, despite the excellent delivery of other elements of the film. It looks at times to be an overwrought screenplay for the cast to work from, but unfortunately some of the delivery is off too.
You could also question the casting overall, which looks like it has taken this year’s entire graduating class of RADA and brought them all together. Cheek bones are all well and good, but in profusion they become like a tell that what your seeing isn’t to be believed, so you end up calling it out, leaving you even more distanced from the production.
Admittedly, they’ve thrown in a couple of token unusual looking guys into the mix too, but because there’s no balance it just looks like people were either terribly good looking or a bit unconventional. If you’ve got any old pictures from your grandad of his time with other troops from WWII you’ll know how clumsy this is.
The performances aren’t all bad, though, in fact they’re not bad at all; it’s just that it all feels a bit off. There are some stand-out actors to look out for, though. Tom Hardy (Taboo) is his usual brilliant self as straight-talking ace spitfire pilot Farrier and Cillian Murphy (Free Fire) captures the trauma of war perfectly as the lone salvaged soldier from a U-Boat attack.
Newcomer, Fionn Whitehead puts in a solid performance as Tommy, the British army soldier that the film follows from start to end. He doesn’t really have enough meaningful dialogue to draw you into his story too much, but what he does, he does well.
Not to dwell too much on the Harry Styles casting decision, or the slight it deals professional actors, he’s actually not that bad in his role as fellow army soldier Collins. He gets some of the bigger lines to deliver towards the end of the film and while they’re effective enough, they’re far from being the high impact moments they’re meant to be.
There are a couple of surprises from big name actors who you’d put money on delivering great lines that just don’t. Kenneth Branagh (Murder On The Orient Express) sounds a bit cheesy as Commander Bolton with his magnanimous heroics and whiff of home on the breeze. Mark Rylance (Bridge Of Spies) is the other significant miscue as civilian boat captain Mr. Dawson. His approach and the direction from Nolan just don’t work well together, and the end result is clunky and a little forced. It’s clear that they’re trying to craft the character and in so doing he ends up coming across as just that instead of the simple man doing what he can.
Returning to more positive points, the reconstructive efforts of the production of one of the largest evacuations in military history is a work of genius. Set construction, string-free CGI and breathtaking dogfight cinematography combine to make the film such an accomplished production.
There are a lot of exceptional shots throughout the whole film with wide, panning sweeps of the beach, sharp perspectives and fast action tracking to make you feel like you’re as close to the reality as possible. Sadly, the positives don’t quite outweigh the negatives, but clearly we’re not in the majority on this one.
Review scores can often be like a chain reaction where a couple of good or bad reviews can cascade through the rest of them, and that appears to be the case for Dunkirk. It’s a decent enough war film that does justice to the lives of the people that survived the horror on the beaches and those that died there. However, it doesn’t quite merit the level of effusive praise that’s being heaped on it at the moment, despite the evident skills that have gone into creating it.
Dunkirk review: 3.7/5