Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.


  1. Did you happen to see this on IMAX, Keith? I did when the film came out. It certainly made you feel like you were being shot at, but, as with other films I’ve seen in that format, it seemed to make the effects and music much louder than the dialogue. I’ll have to see if that maintains when I get the Blu Ray.

    Since I’ve been a big Nolan fan since Memento, I am anticipating/dreading this upcoming awards season. I just refuse to believe that the Academy will nominate Nolan until I actually hear his name called. Even then I might not.

    • Oh, was that an IMAX-specific problem? I thought the score was an abomination, drowning out the dialogue and the effects much of the time. And even without that problem, the movie definitely didn’t need Hans Zimmer’s non-stop BRAAAAAM to make it tense. If it wins Sound Design over Baby Driver it’ll be a shame, and if it wins Sound Mixing over Baby Driver it’ll be a travesty.

      (Other than that, though, I thought it was phenomenal.)

    • I have no idea if it was an IMAX problem or not. It’s something I’ve noticed when I’ve seen films in IMAX, but it might just be those films. I’m not really sure.

      As for what particular films might get nominated for what particular categories, it’s too early for me to start throwing guesses around, especially for the technical categories. Baby Driver feels like one that might get overlooked because it’s not one of the effects-driven films and because it’s not going to be a Best Picture contender. Seems like the nominees in the Sound categories are one of those two.

  2. Brian McGillivray

    I also saw this in IMAX, thought it was great. If we’re handicapping awards, it has to be a front-runner for Sound Design.

  3. The Dude Abides

    I really liked it, especially once I figured out that I was seeing the same attack on a ship from two different perspectives at different parts of the film, and then seeing the same British pilot, also from two different perspectives at different parts of the film.

  4. “Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less….”

    I haven’t seen “Dunkirk” yet, but perhaps “Mad Max: Fury Road” contains less dialogue?

  5. Thanks, Keith. Good review. One aspect of the film that has been quite controversial here in Britain, particularly in this era of English nationalism and Brexit, is its ‘whitewashing’ of history. This OpEd from the Guardian lays out some of the issues.


  6. I wanted the full visual effect of Dunkirk, but had been warned off the overwhelming sound mix of IMAX, so I saw it on a traditional 70mm screen. Highly recommended in that format.

  7. I thought the soundtrack, which was essentially two hours of ‘tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick’ took away from the film. It created unnecessary tension, for me it was too noticeable, Nolan wanted you to feel the drama and tension and went overboard when it came to the soundtrack.

    I thought everything else worked, and enjoyed it greatly. But the, imo, false tension that the soundtrack created knocked it down a half grade for me.