Dunkirk (Warner Bros., PG-13)

Three stories intertwine in Dunkirk, each introduced by a title card indicating the location (land, sea, or air) and the time frame (one week, one day, and one hour, respectively).

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk offers a different take on a well-established genre, the World War II film, offering a film-going experience that is more visceral than intellectual or emotional. Nolan (who also wrote the script) has created a film with little dialogue, which largely eschews conventional character development, and whose central event is not a glorious victory but a strategic retreat. At the same time, Dunkirk is populated with character types and story lines that will be familiar to any fan of war movies, and the combination of familiar archetypes with nontraditional storytelling will delight some viewers while pleasing others. It’s also a film that will be enjoyed most by viewers familiar with the events portrayed and who are able to pick up on visual cues (e.g., different military uniforms and insignia) that deliver critical information about the characters.

Three stories intertwine in Dunkirk, each introduced by a title card indicating the location (land, sea, or air) and the time frame (one week, one day, and one hour, respectively). The land-based story involves Allied soldiers lined up on the beach awaiting rescue, some clustered on a mole (a type of coastal defense consisting of a long rock structure extending into the sea). The focal point for this story is a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) about whom we know virtually nothing, other than that he desperately wants to stay alive, get on a boat, and get back to England. He shares that story with all the soldiers on the beach, so by following his story we’re following all of theirs as well, a fact underlined by the fact that Whitehead’s character’s name, “Tommy,” is a nickname used for common soldiers in the British Army.

The sea story involves a civilian, Mr. Dawson, (Mark Rylance), representing the many private boat owners who sailed into danger to aid in the rescue effort. Piloting a pleasure vessel with the aid of his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young man determined to get in on the action (Barry Keoghan), Rylance delivers the film’s most rounded portrayal, that of an ordinary man who rose to the occasion and placed the needs of his country above that of his own safety.

The air story features some of the best cinematography in Dunkirk, which is saying something in a film that relies largely on visuals for its effectiveness. Tom Hardy plays an RAF Spitfire pilot who engages in a dogfight with German Messerschmitts attacking the ships and men gathered in the channel and on the beach. Of the three stories, this one is the least emotionally involving, in large part because Hardy is hidden behind a pilot’s mask for most of the film. On the plus side, the aerial photography is breathtaking, and it’s not every day you get to see aerial combat from the pilot’s point of view.

Dunkirk was shot primarily on IMAX cameras, using 65 mm film, and demands to be seen on a big screen in a theatre with a first-rate sound system (Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock of a score seems dedicated to making viewers as tense as the characters in the film). In other words, don’t wait to watch this one on your TV, because you’ll be missing out on most of what it has to offer. It’s worth noting that innovations such as widescreen and 3D were originally developed to pull people away from their TV screens and get them back into movie theatres, and Dunkirk is exactly the kind of film that should succeed in that effort. While some viewers may be disappointed by the lack of conventional storytelling and the puzzle-like way in which the story lines intertwine (a Nolan trademark), Dunkirk has enough to offer in terms of visceral experience to make it worth your while. | Sarah Boslaugh

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