Dunkirk Review: A Lesson in Empathy


As the distant whine of a Luftwaffe dive bomber enters earshot, we see a crowd of boys crane their heads towards the skies. The plane draws near, the mounting fear in their shell-shocked visages becoming more pronounced. Although the shot is wide, the details are clear because together they form a collage of pure human terror.

This is a recurring image in Dunkirk, Nolan’s war epic meets survival tale. It’s a film that is both grand and intimate, depicting one of the most important events in modern history through the myopic lens of those who are simply doing their best to not die.

Although this scene of an approaching dive bomber plays out multiple times, tension never subsides because these sounds and sights are presented with such emotional acuity that the viewer is in a constant state of distress. The soundscape is designed to rupture eardrums; the sharp whiz of bullets, hellish whine of falling bombs, and agonized cries of men being crushed form an apocalyptic symphony. The shells seem to take an eternity to reach the earth and rip through the defenseless Allied soldiers, some of which ineffectually fire their rifles at the sky in a desperate attempt to feel some semblance of control over their fate. Bullets rip through steel and flesh with an auditory punch that made me fear I was going to develop a hernia. Through the whole thing Hans Zimmers’ score rages silently, a discordant buzz of nightmarish strings that embodies the constant tension of doomed encirclement. When deliverance finally occurs the score morphs entirely, amplifying the sense of catharsis.

There is a shot where Tommy, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, attempts to bury his head in the sand like an ostrich, as wave of bomb after bomb tears through his compatriots. It’s a sequence that demonstrates the helplessness of being a fish in a barrel. It makes us see and feel the horrors of war not through gore and viscera, but instead through empathy. The cast of Dunkirk does not speak often, but their bleary vacant stares make us understand their inner machinations perfectly. Whether its Mark Rylance’s stoic performance as the quietly lionhearted Mr. Dawson, Branagh’s personable Commander Bolton (God when his eyes well with tears), or the surprisingly pretty good Harry Styles performance, the entire cast makes the most of their sparse dialogue.

Beyond the powerful subtly of the performances and writing, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s fantastic cinematography brings the war-zone to life. The muted blues, browns, and grays of the French beach captures not only a clash between people, but also a clash between people and nature. The all-consuming sea is a character of its own, swallowing up husks of warped metal ships and men all the same. The camera presents us with harsh angles that make the capsizing boats appear otherworldly, and whenever characters drown it is presented with disorienting, claustrophobic shots. There is such ferocity in the myriad scenes of people drowning that the stakes are laid abundantly clear. This is what death looks like, deftly expressing why our characters on the beach are scrambling towards any semblance of safety. There is a marked realism that allows for immersion, embodied in the largely first person dog fights between Farrier (Tom Hardy) and the Luftwaffe. By ditching the modern technique of shaky cam combined with frantic cutting, we are treated to patient aerial battles that are based around tension instead of bombast. And although the events depicted are inherently bombastic and delivered in 70mm, it is these grounded characteristics that allow the film to be so resonant despite its grandeur.

This is Nolan at his most poetic and minimalist. Instead of Spielbergian grand displays of heroism and sacrifice, we get hundreds of scared boys on a beach, waiting to die. However, even with its constant reminders of human fragility and cowardice, it still manages to convey the inspirational quality of this event. Because it routinely rejects simplistic notions of heroism, this makes its displays of selflessness all the more profound. The sacrifices of the British every-men and fighter pilots are depicted in heart wrenching detail; producing one moment in particular that is perhaps the most singularly beautiful moment in a Nolan film. (Spoiler/Hint: A landing plane)

With a narrative that unceremoniously cross cuts between three seemingly discrete asynchronous chunks, a dearth of dialogue, and a reliance on using the camera to deliver the narrative, Dunkirk is strikingly non-Hollywood take on the war epic. It manages the herculean task of depicting hundreds of thousands of human bodies on an enormous frame, while also being a thesis statement in empathy. It engenders intense feelings of fear, desperation, and loss to depict the thin limbo between life and death, and the intrinsic human fear of entering the void. And yet even against the nameless and faceless forces of encroaching death, there is always a reason to persevere.

Thanks Nolan, looking forward to the next picture.

Rating: 5 Stars (*****)

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