REVIEW: ‘Dunkirk’ Is Technically Marvelous, But Lacking In Other Areas

Like Director Christopher Nolan’s other films, “Dunkirk” is a well crafted film. However, it’s not on the same level of his other great pictures.

As the title implies, “Dunkirk” is about the evacuation of British forces in early World War II after Germany invades France. The film opens with British troops preparing to evacuate across the English Channel before the German military has a chance to reach them. As this is taking place, the film also gives its focus to members of the Royal Air Force who did battle with the Luftwaffe to help the escape as well as a group of citizens who assisted in the rescue of soldiers from the battle field with their private vessel.

The picture develops by showing the hardships of the soldiers who were constantly under threat of the Luftwaffe while also displaying the bravery of citizens who helped the soldiers with their own ships.

While “Dunkirk” does have many moments that explore the horror of war, there were some difficulties in connecting with things happening on screen. From my perspective, this is due both because of how the story is plotted and how the characters are presented.

As mentioned above, there are three stories taking place, with each of them unraveling at different time intervals. For example, the scenes taking place on the beach are supposed to be taking place over a week while those on the private citizen vessel is all in a day. Despite these time intervals eventually crossing each other to bring things together in the third act, it takes a while to get there.

As a result, it can be difficult to tell what exactly is going on and where characters are since the movie is taking place in such a vast area. Sometimes a British plane will shoot down a German one, yet it’s not taking place at the same time as the German planes attacking allied soldiers. Sequences like this caused a bit of disorientation with what was happening.

Regarding the characters, the biggest flaw is a lack of development with many of them. Characters such as Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead and the pilot Farrier, portrayed by Tom Hardy, are not explored too much. Now, it’s understandable that Nolan’s approach was for “Dunkirk” to be less of a character driven piece and more about the experience of the evacuation.

From this point, yes, it would have been difficult to dive into the backstories of these characters. However, on top being low on character development, most of the characters are very dry when it comes to personality. Whitehead’s Tommy, for example, feels rather blank.

It pales in comparison to, say, the opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” In the first 20 minutes of that movie, it displays the landings at Normandy and it put audiences right into that experience, and there isn’t extensive character development. Yet, thanks to the way the characters were portrayed, audiences were could pick up hints of who characters were and get a sense of their personalities, building an emotional core.

This is something “Dunkirk” sorely lacks in many areas.

Fortunately, though, there’s one spot that shines through and that’s Academy Award winner Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, who’s sailing his private ship to rescue soldiers. Rylance has such a commanding screen presence that his character and those around him became the film’s only emotional anchor. He was the only thing I really became attached to in the picture, as I could feel his respect for the soldiers, his understanding of war and his patriotism.

With the other characters, I wasn’t as attached and therefore I wasn’t as invested or engaged when some of the more traumatic moments were going on. From a visual and auditory standpoint, the film’s moments of war are able to hold one’s attention. After the movie was over, though, what occurred on screen didn’t stick with me.

With that said, the movie does deserve quite a bit of credit for its technical aspects. As expected with a Nolan film, everything looks wonderful. There are some incredible shots on the beaches and the way scenes are shot at sea do give a frightening sense of isolation. Similarly, the sound work was also top notch, from torpedoes fired underwater to the machine guns of fighter planes.

The picture also deserves praise for how the battle scenes were portrayed. “Dunkirk” never feels exploitative with how the war is shown, as there’s never excessive explosions or gunfire. Rather, the flick dials back and makes things appear much more realistic and authentic. The film also ends with some beautiful cinematography.

“Dunkirk” is a very well made movie but I found it lacking in some key areas that made it difficult to become emotionally invested. The technical aspects and Rylance’s performance are major positives but I was hoping for more. If you’re really interested in a major war battle dramatized, check it on the big screen. Otherwise, it’s a rental. 2.9 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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