"DUNKIRK" — 3½ stars — Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh; PG-13 (intense war experience and some language); in general release
Over his career, director Christopher Nolan has applied his unique storytelling style and knack for mind-blowing visuals to subjects as diverse as interplanetary science fiction, dark superhero origin stories and vengeful 19th-century magicians.
In "Dunkirk," Nolan captures the intensity, desperation and triumph of the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, when British civilians were called to help rescue 400,000 trapped Allied soldiers pinned on a French beach and about to be driven into the English Channel by German forces.
Nolan splits the rescue narrative into three threads. In the first, a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), separated from his decimated patrol, scrambles to find his way off the beach. Teaming up with another infantryman (Damien Bonnard), Tommy dashes from one seemingly safe haven to another, only to find it destroyed by an unseen enemy that has them surrounded.
The second thread follows a British civilian named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his two sons George (Barry Keoghan) and Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who answer the call to rescue and pilot their family boat across the English channel in the hopes of bringing a few of the abandoned soldiers back with them. Along the way, they pick up a shell-shocked lone survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy), whose reluctance to return to Dunkirk leads to unexpected complications.
The final, and most spectacular, thread follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), a pair of British spitfire pilots trying to clear the air of German bombers so the ships in the water can evacuate the soldiers off the beach. In a series of shots that alternate between intense closeups and vast wide-angle seascapes, Nolan pieces together dog fights that feel incredibly powerful for their comparative simplicity.
Intense is probably the best word to describe a film that uses a persistent stopwatch sound on its soundtrack to underscore the insistence of each narrative. Tommy fights the clock after getting trapped in the rapidly flooding hold of the ship that was supposed to carry him home. Mr. Dawson presses toward Dunkirk even after George is injured on a fall on the boat. Collins finds his cockpit jammed after a rough water landing, and Farrier spends most of the movie flying with a broken fuel gauge, estimating how long he'll be able to stay in the air before landing himself.
Nolan has traditionally bent his narratives around non-chronological timelines to create suspense and add drama to his stories. "Dunkirk" is no different, weaving its three threads together to make them feel simultaneous, even though some of the events we see are happening days apart. The film's pace hardly takes a breath, and "Dunkirk's" total running time comes in under two hours.
A dominating score has been another go-to element in the Nolan toolbox, and Hans Zimmer almost comes through too well. While punching up the scope and emotive quality of the visuals, at times "Dunkirk's" sound is so overpowering that it obscures character dialogue, particularly in places that might have been better served with a little quiet.
Still, even if you miss some of the spoken word, "Dunkirk" is such a visual experience that you won't have too much trouble keeping up. With such a simple premise to work with, Nolan lets his camera tell the story for him, leaping from one dramatic set piece to another, whether chasing through the abandoned streets of the city, clamoring over a sinking destroyer or clinging to the side of a spitfire as it sweeps, dives and sails over the vast English Channel.
Its flaws may keep it from reaching the highest levels of Nolan's directorial catalog, but as a portrait of a pivotal moment in world history, "Dunkirk" is the kind of gripping and powerful experience that Imax screens were made for.
"Dunkirk" is rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language; running time: 106 minutes.