by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 21, 2017

Kenneth Branagh stars in 'Dunkirk'
Kenneth Branagh stars in 'Dunkirk'  (Source:arner Bros. Pictures)

In terms of subject matter, production, and approach, Christopher Nolan's World War II film "Dunkirk" has the feel of something that wants to be epic, but it doesn't make the grade.

Three stories built around trios of men comprise the film, and those stories all take place during different intervals of time. We first meet Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British soldier so desperate to get away from the advancing enemy that he'll do anything to secure passage on one of the few large British vessels ferrying troops across the channel and back home. He encounters another youthful soldier with similarly desperate feelings (Damien Bonnard) and, wordlessly, the two strike up a kind of partnership. The two fish a third companion out of the ocean after a harrowing German air strike, before getting involved in some intense seafaring ordeals. (Their story unfolds over the course of a week.)

Next, we meet the owner of a small private boat, a dauntless Patriot called Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance, accomplishing much with his usual seeming effortlessness). Dawson's son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) hops aboard when Dawson decides that rather than leave it to the Royal Navy to ferry stranded men from Dunkirk back to Britain, he'd just as soon do it himself. Not one to be left out, Peter's school friend George (Barry Keoghan) joins them. They're headed for Dunkirk but are open to any chance to pick up men on the water; it's not long before they encounter the survivor of a ship's sinking, a shell-shocked fellow played by Cillian Murphy who's reluctant, to say the least, to be hauled back the way he just came. He'd much rather they turn the boat around and head home. Dawson puts it to him plainly, noting that "There'll be no home" unless every man stands up to do his duty. It's a sentiment that deserves, and evokes, a shiver from a contemporary audience. (Their adventure takes place over a day.)

Finally, we're introduced to a trio of airmen winging across the water in their Spitfires. They get into dogfights with German pilots looking to bomb mine sweepers, Red Cross boats, and any other vessels that might be coming to the aid of the 400,000 men stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. Their aerial battles are thrilling: Nolan shot this movie on film and it looks like he used real planes for his airborne stunt work, too. Tom Hardy turns out to be one of the pilots, though their features are so cured for most of the film that you don't realize it until the end. Jack Lowden plays another, a pilot whose path eventually intersects with those of the other groups we've already met. (Their story spans an hour.)

Nolan's penchant for doing odd and interesting things with time is a recurring motif. "Memento" explored the dramatic and mysterious possibilities of an amnesiac protagonist by presenting its storyline in reverse chronological order. "Inception" nested dreams into dreams, with time in each dream-world running more slowly than in the one adjacent and parallel stories running on top of one another in a wild temporal disjunct. "Interstellar" touched on temporal dislocation when its heroes weathered gravitationally-induced instances of time dilation.

But in this case, Nolan doesn't manage to do much of interest with the time-bending conceit. The film's three story lines do finally click together, but not in a way that feels exceptional; movies have been playing with time in this way for a, well, long time, and generally without making a fuss about it. Audiences simply accept that what they're seeing isn't necessarily happening in sequential order. A week, an hour a day... a "whatever."

But that's not the film's main flaw. What hampers "Dunkirk" and frustrates its reach for greatness is the way the film builds momentum time and time again, only to lose steam and start over. There are episodes within the film that feel suspenseful, gripping, and terrifying; there are even small moments of underplayed humor, starting with Tommy's need to find a place to relieve himself -- a project that's interrupted, but not derailed, by a burst of enemy machine gun fire and a full-on life-or-death fight for survival. (War is hell, but earthly needs must still be met.)

But for all the film's visual and plotting cleverness in shaping and then fitting the pieces of a larger picture together, there's little sense of any sustained tension or primary through-line. Nor is there much surprise: You see the shapes of the puzzle pieces, and how they will fit together, long before they assemble, so there's no real snap to the experience. Watching "Dunkirk," with its polished camera moves and its crisp, chest-thumping sound design is absorbing, but it also feels a little like binge watching an action-packed series on Netflix. You segue from episode to episode, coming out of the theater less than two hours later feeling like you just sat through a whole season's worth of something but unsure of exactly what, apart from the general goal of transporting a massive bulk of manpower by means of a huge fleet of all private boats, the movie was about. Did it have a moral? A meaning?

Perhaps; if so, the then the film's comment or central tenant might be found during a placid train journey, after some of the men we've been following make it back home. Poring over newspapers, the soldiers voice doubt about their contributions to the war effort. Were they rescued, or did they, in effect, run away from battle? A man outside their window raps on the glass and, unwilling to face him, they refuse to look up. A moment later, when they realize why he's trying to get their attention, the last piece falls into place. It's a revelatory moment, sweet and fragile after the rattle of big guns and the devastating thunder of explosions, and the question presents itself: Was all that sound and fury really meant to signify this?

What "Dunkirk" is, more than anything else, is a portrait of heroism, and to paint it Nolan looks in some improbable places. To find this, however, you have to look in the crash and the margins, because the field of battle is a little too busy and unfocused.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.