Dunkirk Review: Intensely real, but lacking in character

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Dunkirk (2017) Poster

Dunkirk generates an intense wartime terror, but the jumbled story and undeveloped characters keep it from being completely successful. The film tells the story of evacuating nearly 300,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk, France during World War II. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seat the entire time, because trouble is always waiting at the end of every scene. Every time a character thinks they have escaped, a bomber plane flies overhead, a torpedo strikes a boat, or a plane lands on the water.

The best visual piece to Dunkirk is the aerial battles. The camera shows the cockpit with the pilot, the enemy plane in the crosshairs, the hand of the pilot pressing the trigger, and finally an array of bullets firing from the side of the plane. There are very few wide shots in the battles that show both the German planes and the British planes fighting, which provides a sense that you are one of the pilots. You are in the cockpit, lining up the shot in the crosshairs, and taking the shot. The sound effects during the aerial battles are louder than any other part of the film. When firing bullets, the sound is frighteningly loud. This may have bothered some, but I found it added to the realistic mood of the film.

In fact, the entire film provides the impression that you are one of the soldiers. I’ve heard this experience is felt even more on the IMAX, but I did not view the film that way. A film should not rely heavily on certain viewing technology to make it better. The audience’s enjoyment of a film should not depend on the size of the screen used to view it. In the same way, a film is more than just special effects; a film needs a good story, relatable characters, and much more. And this is where Dunkirk starts to fail.

Director Christopher Nolan enjoys telling stories out-of-order, as in Memento. He does the same with Dunkirk, splitting the movie into three sections. It shows a week in “The Mole,” a day in “The Sea,” and an hour in “The Air.” Telling a number of intertwining stories out-of-order has become a popular directorial trend in films. This was once a rare tactic only used by a few directors, such as Quentin Tarantino.

Dunkirk sea

At times, a jumbled chronology works to slowly reveal clues to a mystery or answers to questions. But with Dunkirk, the out-of-order story only serves to confuse the audience. After viewing the film once, I feel that re-watching it may help to better understand how all the pieces fit. However, needing to view a film more than once because one viewing doesn’t allow you to make sense of it is not a great testament to a director’s skill as a storyteller.

The most confusing scene involves Cillian Murphy. Murphy plays the Shivering Soldier in most of the film, but he is in a later scene on a lifeboat that turns away other characters because the boat is too full. This scene should set up a later scene that reveals how Murphy’s character got from this point to the place where we find him, but it does not. This makes Murphy’s placement in this scene confusing. It looks more like a Cillian Murphy cameo in a film where he already plays a separate character.

Dunkirk purposely avoids the typical blood and gore of other war films like Saving Private Ryan, which asserts that the film will be more about the philosophy and psychology of war. However, this is not completely realized because none of the characters have any development. At the end of the film, I had trouble remembering any character’s name or being able to describe them. None of the characters have any story arc or undergo any change.

Another reason the film lacks character development is that Dunkirk has very little dialogue. A film with little dialogue depends on the action to advance the story. But the characters’ response to the action is just more action with no depth. Bombers fly over the beach, so the soldiers try to get on a boat. Bombers sink the boat, so they move into this other boat. A torpedo hits this boat, so they move into the ocean. The dialogue that does exist is cliché and sounds written with only the movie trailer in mind.

The faceless and never seen antagonists also hurt the story. We see German planes dropping bombs on boats or the beach and firing bullets at the British planes, but other than that, we never see any German soldiers or pilots. A good story needs a good antagonist. With a faceless antagonist, the threat is more like a natural event than an opposing army.

Dunkirk cast

Next, most of the actors in Dunkirk do nothing to stand out, except for Tom Hardy. Hardy does the best acting of the film while wearing an oxygen mask in the cockpit of a plane and he does so with his eyes. With one look, the audience knows what he is thinking and feeling. This is especially the case while he is calculating the fuel left in his plane after the fuel gauge breaks. Acting is more than just how you deliver a line. Acting is also body language or facial expressions. The eyes alone can convey emotion.

Other than Hardy, the acting does not stand out much, but this could be due to the quality and lack of dialogue. Cillian Murphy’s delivering of lines lacks a true intensity that I felt even in the trailer when he yells, “Turn her around!” His performance outside of the yelling is believable though. Mark Rylance also delivers lines that sound forced, such as, “There’s no hiding from this son. We have a job to do.” Harry Styles of One Direction plays a convincing young soldier; however, not being a huge One Direction fan, I didn’t even notice it was him until after seeing the film. Many of the other performances are also believable, but not memorable.

For the most part, the music in Dunkirk is reminiscent of other Hans Zimmer compositions, other than the constant ticking that again contributes to the uneasy mood of the film. There is also a welcome tonal change that brings a swell of emotions as the civilian boats finally arrive to pick up the British soldiers from Dunkirk.

The costumes, setting, makeup, and hair-styling fit with the time. None of the costumes seemed out-of-place for the time. The foam on the beach is a nice touch that adds to the realism of the film. That said, a lot of the leading characters look too clean and have perfect haircuts. The extras have dirt covering their faces and messy hair, but the leading characters do not. It doesn’t hurt the telling of the story, but it is something that stands out.

It is very easy to draw comparisons to Brexit with Dunkirk; however, it is not clear where the film stands on the controversial topic. One could argue that it favors Brexit as the film focuses on just the British soldiers exiting the rest of Europe to better serve the needs of Britain. However, the film also highlights the actions of Commander Bolton — who stays behind to help the French — which could be in favor of staying with Europe to work together to fix problems with the European Union.

Overall, Dunkirk is an entertaining film, but the unnecessary order and undeveloped characters hinder the story from reaching its full potential.

Final Grade: C

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