Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk, which was code-named Operation Dynamo – although that wasn’t named in this film, and showed the extrication of our soldiers from Dunkirk’s beaches and harbour in Northern France, in an operation which took place in 1940 from May 26th to June 4th. Personally, I wasn’t too well up on this period of World War II, so it also served as a history lesson – as much as a movie can which has fictional characters, but ones which are based on what the real soldiers went through.
What often lets even a brilliant Christopher Nolan film down is what’s spoken. Nolan, himself, has written this script, although he often shares the duties with his brother, Jonathan. At least there’s not much chat in this, but in the case of Interstellar, for example, the incredible visuals helped distract from the soap opera-style dialogue.
But there’s so much to admire, here, because if there’s one man who knows what he’s doing with the entire 1.44:1 70mm IMAX screen (which is shown cropped to 16:9, here, but I discuss this in the extras), it’s Christopher Nolan, and he gives us visuals which impress from the moment it begins, as the soldiers are walking along, before escaping enemy fire. Throw in a pulsating score from Hans Zimmer, which is like a character all of its own, plus aerial dogfights which are mind-bending at times, reminding me of the spaceship flying over the alien sea at an angle, early on in Interstellar after they visit the first planet.
Don’t make the same mistake I did, as the first part follows young British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), but in a land-based section that’s called The Mole. So, I wondered what exactly is his role as a mole? And how come that isn’t told to us at all? Well, he’s not a mole in the traditional movie sense. The mole is the under-section of a bridge, from which boats are setting off. Since they can’t get on the one they want, they have to wait for another, but like Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, what can go wrong DOES go wrong, and it goes wrong EVERY damn time. So… I was expecting some big reveal that never came. D’oh!
And with his story being told over the course of a week, there were times in the cinema when it felt a little thin and overlong, such as the boat hull scene, and you’re just wanting it to get to the next part of his tale, although after two IMAX 70mm viewings, this third viewing at home feels like it flows better.
For the two other sections mixed in, the first is at sea, set over the course of day, with Mark Rylance, simply known as Mr Dawson, who heads off to brave the danger of all that war can bring, assisting the recovery of soldiers forced into the sea as their ships go down. His was one of many small boats who heard the call for assistance and sailed forth. Again, his is a fictional character, but this will have been the case for many people. For Mr Dawson, he’s accompanied his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and another young lad and a friend of the family, George (Barry Keoghan).
The other are for the aforementioned aerial sequences, and take place over a mere hour, mostly featuring pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down the enemy. These three sections are brilliantly melded together, although it does take a little getting used to that thanks to the chronology being out, you’ll see elements of one scene before they crop up in another. They are skilfully mixed together, however.
Dunkirk is another technical marvel from Christopher Nolan, but before the closing credits run, it feels like a 100-minute chapter to a much longer story, the contents of which we will never see.
All those named so far produce some good work in this huge ensemble cast. As for Harry Styles, I was hoping he’d buy the farm in the first five minutes. He doesn’t, as he’s one of the main characters and the studio want to bring da yoof in to watch. He’s okay but doesn’t stand out, particularly. Okay, he shouts a bit in one scene, but then that’s the same for everyone else in that scene. He’s been brought to the fore, simply because he’s the bloke from One Direction. There’s much better acting from his fellow soldiers, one or two of whom I recognised by face, including Brian Vernel, credited as Highlander 1, who looks a bit like Free Fire‘s Sam Riley.
I also think in the cinema, it could’ve used subtitles in some scenes, as the score and war sounds drowned out the dialogue, while at other times it was over-loud to the point where you couldn’t grasp what they were saying. I did wonder whether that was intentional, as some directors can be like that. At home, you can, indeed, put the subtitles on.
And, rather than being packed full of CGI like most productions, as the extras prove, Nolan wanted to avoid CGI as much as possible, and the cast included many thousands of extras on the beach, plus there were boats from the real Dunkirk evacuation, as well as planes from the era for those scenes up in the air.
So, how good is Dunkirk? It’s great, but not quite Nolan’s best, taking everything into account, even though a third viewing has impressed me more. For the cinema release, of course, all the critics seem to get together again and given it five stars each. It feels like, because this film will garner many Oscars, the papers take that opportunity to give it five stars so they can get their names on the poster. The same happened with non-Oscar-laden Skyfall and Spectre, and more recently, Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Not all critics can realistically agree so often?!
Dunkirk isn’t quite at the same height with Inception, nor Interstellar. Both of those have far more complex stories, while Dunkirk occasionally felt a little sparse in that department, even though it’s up to an hour shorter than both of those.
That said, you certainly get your money’s worth for seeing this in the opened up IMAX ratio, since that format is used almost entirely from start to finish. Periodically, it drops into 2.20:1, for a couple of minutes at a time – unless it needs to cut back to the aerial dogfights which are always in IMAX, but I couldn’t see the point in doing this, as it wasn’t like a major change of scene had happened. I wondered if it might be because they cut to some tightly-filmed scenes inside Dawson’s boat, but then it stayed that way at times when he went out on deck, and if it needed to cut to Kenneth Branagh standing about outside, it did the same, there. Meanwhile, tightly-filmed cockpit scenes in the dogfights were always in the IMAX ratio.
What clearly isn’t up for any debate is the astounding success of this film. On the second weekend for any film, you’d expect the numbers to have tailed off, but I saw this on the Sunday night, and the place was still packed to the rafters. I understand that in the US, IMAX screenings have accounted for 25% of the overall box office, so the much-deserved promotion of the format clearly worked.
It’s also a great thing that many people are going to see a film in IMAX which was actually *shot* in IMAX! So many films showing on those screens aren’t even shot with those cameras, and nor are they 3D versions actually filmed in 3D, either. In fact, the only live-action 3D film released this year which was *shot* in 3D is Transformers: The Last Knight. Every other movie is an impostor to the format! And Michael Bay’s fifth toy-based movie was also actually filmed with IMAX cameras like Dunkirk, albeit with digital IMAX and not 70mm – but then Warner Bros bought up all the remaining 70mm film stock, Bay’s film came from Paramount Pictures.
The film is presented in 1080p high definition, and looks crystal clear with zero defects, at any point in the story. I can’t find a single flaw within. That’s what you’d expect with a modern release, but it’s even more essential with a film like this.
The sound is in DTS HD 5.1 and I’ve already mentioned the score, but add in the dogfights, the harsh sea, and the sheer tension, and you must watch this in one sitting from start to finish. Go to the loo beforehand! Don’t pause it! You’ll reap the benefits.
Don’t forget to check out the unboxing video below, but first, the extras, which are split into five featurettes, totalling 110 minutes, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them in full. You can play each one of the five individually, or as one whole; and within, you can watch each piece separately, but I saw them by category. Each shows Christopher Nolan and other crew members talking about their experiences of making the film, plus the experiences of Dunkirk veterans who were actually there. If you’re looking for cast members, not many are present; I can only recall Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy chipping in briefly.
Clips of the finished film are in 2.20:1, even for those which were shot in 70mm, but there is work-in-progress footage with IMAX in the original 1.44:1 ratio and it’s glorious. I really would’ve loved that to have been an option on the movie disc.
And as is confirmed, “No real Spitfires were harmed in the making of this film.”
The five segments are:
- Creation (22:19): Revisiting the Miracle (going back to the location, before filming began), Dunkerque, Expanding the Frame (IMAX format), The In-Camera Approach
- Land (16:39): Rebuilding the Mole, The Army On the Beach, Uniform Approach (costumes)
- Air (18:30): Taking to the Air (inc. attaching IMAX cameras to the planes, inside and out), Inside the Cockpit
- Sea (36:57): Assembling the Naval Fleet, Launching the Moonstone (inc. superimposing Mark Rylance’s face on some old photos inside, to personalise it), Taking to the Sea (not just Dunkirk, but at the IJsselmeer in Holland), Sinking the Ships, The Little Ships
- Conclusion (15:19): Turning Up the Tension (the music), The Dunkirk Spirit
The menus feature a brief bit of the opening scene with a small bit of the score, before it fades into the DUNKIRK lettering with the sea through the letters, all against a black background, and silence.
Sadly, for a film that is such a technical marvel, the chaptering department called in sick. There’s only TEN! Well, plus one for the end credits.
Running time: 106 minutes
Studio: Icon Home Entertainment
Released: December 18th 2017
Picture: 1080p High Definition
Sound: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Language: English, Italian, Spanish Castillian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Subtitles (Movie): English, Italian, Spanish Castillian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Subtitles (Extras): English, French, German, Italian, Spanish Castillian, Dutch, Chinese (2 options), Korean, Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Thai, Turkish
Format: 1.78:1 (most scenes: IMAX 70mm venues), 2.20:1 (DCP ratio: Based in flat) (70mm prints), Dolby Vision, IMAX, IMAX HDR, Panavision Super 70
Disc Format: 2*BD50
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Music: Hans Zimmer
Tommy: Fionn Whitehead
Gibson: Aneurin Barnard
Mr. Dawson: Mark Rylance
George: Barry Keoghan
Peter: Tom Glynn-Carney
Farrier: Tom Hardy
Collins: Jack Lowden
Commander Bolton: Kenneth Branagh
Colonel Winnant: James D’Arcy
Rear Admiral: Matthew Marsh
Alex: Harry Styles
Highlander 1: Brian Vernel
Highlander 2: Elliott Tittensor
Highlander 3: Kevin Guthrie
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.