As period war films go, this film hits all the right notes. The three stories that are juggled throughout meld together well. It seems most of the action-and we know how this story ends-is played to be heard solely through the mood-inducing soundtrack accompanying the action. The mood of the period piece, the drama inherent in the telling of a compelling story, and all the combined components therein conspire to be in sync with the masterly musical overtures heard throughout the film.
The stories include one depicting a couple of young men struggling to stay alive when faced with the enormity of the situation on the beach at Dunkirk. The second storyline is the Mark Rylance plot, the most compelling of the three. He is a local boatman with a son and his helper who brave the channel when the call comes out for rescue. The third story, which is probably the most disappointing and plebian of all, involves Tom Hardy’s flying spitfire squadron group who are tasked with protecting the evacuation from the sky. The dogfights and the tight shots of Hardy’s face are really the only dramatic plot points carried forward in these unremarkable segments.
The story of ordinary men braving the war is held together by Rylance’s performance, subtle, nuanced and most effective-as was the case in Bridge of Spies which earned him an Oscar nomination. The pop star status of Harry Styles is almost taken to parody, as you see Styles as just one of a vast sea of young men with similar faces all waiting for their fates to be decided in the theater of war. The struggle and the miracle of Dunkirk is only as compelling as the belief that ordinary men can do extraordinary things.
Tom Hardy, so movingly effective in the subtle nuance department ranging from The Drop to his role in Lawless, is here almost obliterated literally with a mask and what amounts to a cameo walk-on as a flyer who is seen in a series of cliched Top Gun-nish style shots from the cockpit. There is one reviewer pointing out that the director deliberately challenged Hardy by covering his features and giving him little to work with, but somehow that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you are watching the film.
The plots for all three stories do sync at some point, with the level of action ebbing and flowing accordingly. Kenneth Branagh is decently served as one of the English commanders who oversees the operation and tries to narrate the action in the finally satisfying denouement that is the culmination of the stories blended together. The point, as mentioned, of the miracle of Dunkirk is only realized if you can convey the scope and breadth of the undertaking that led these small boat owners and ordinary citizens to deliver a victory of sorts to the allies. Although very little time is spent on the actual logistics involved in this operation, the visuals are brought home in stark relief with gloriously monochromatic landscapes that fit the theme.
This film would probably not have worked as well with a lesser director, editor, cinematographer and musical score. That means in the final analysis- the film works well for what it is- a period drama that tells a compelling story with gifted actors, a masterful director, and all the other big-budget elements needed to advance the movie.
It is a moving story in many ways, and has much to lend to the short-range projects we often see projected in lights with CGI, with special effects and with space-age fantasy and plot elements. This is one for the ages-meaning the ages past and those with an appreciation of history. As movie making goes in the modern era, in Christopher Nolan’s case, one might say this was his Finest Hour.