‘Dunkirk’ Is Christopher Nolan’s Best but Still Largely Unintelligible

Most of the action is restricted to drowning survivors

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I’ve wasted an inordinate amount of time in the past few years trying to figure out the confusing lagniappe Christopher Nolan calls filmmaking. Since I have hated everything he’s done to date, from the pretentious Inception to the silly, preposterous Dark Knight trilogy, I had high hopes for Dunkirk. While in no way deserving of the slobbering genuflection with which many reviewers have greeted it, I agree it is the director’s best and most accessible work to date.

It even contains ingredients of awe and impact. Not enough, I’m sorry to add, to resist the usual war movie clichés, qualify for greatness or surpass Saving Private Ryan. But if you can stand the ear-splitting music that renders 90 percent of the heavily accented dialogue incomprehensible, or follow what there is of the convoluted plot—or if you’re a fan of war and carnage in general—you won’t be bored.

For his first fact-based historical epic, Nolan’s fuzzy focus is on the epic plight of the 400,000 French and British allies caught up in the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II, who were driven to the beaches across the English Channel where they were relentlessly bombed by the Germans while waiting to be rescued by Churchill. The movie is about their courage, loss, despair, pride and hope. Nolan’s goals—to prove, once again, that war is hell and demonstrate the British people’s resolve to protect their country’s freedom with heroic sacrifice and unquenchable patriotism—are met with noble and unflinching craftsmanship. The immense cast, comprising mostly unknowns and supplemented by a few veterans such as Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy in small, inconsequential appearances, works hard to bring the horrors of war to life. But the fact remains that Dunkirk was a chapter in the fight for victory that centered on U-boats, mine sweepers, dive bombers and brave civilian responders in fishing boats. Nolan captures the panic and evokes the anguish and desperation, but most of the action is restricted to drowning survivors, so you never get the same sense of being thrown into the center of a nightmare that Steven Spielberg achieved in Saving Private Ryan.

Still, it’s a gripping addition to the canon of war on film that is definitely worthy of attention, and some of the images are electrifying. I won’t soon forget the startling shot of men lined up on the beach, wading through corpses in water up to their waists to reach smoking ships, while enemy bombs scatter their dying comrades. You get hauntingly choreographed scenes of the sick and wounded leaping into the sea from a bombed medical ship, an unforgettable sequence involving a pilot rescued from the frozen water in such a state of shock he can’t even say his own name, stunning aerial photography that captures war from a series of dizzying angles, and there’s a particularly grim sense of chaos and death when a rescue vessel filled with survivors is hit by an enemy torpedo. As admirable as much of it is, viewers already familiar with the director’s affinity for cross-cutting and narrative incoherence will know to expect a lot of noise and very little text. Hoyte van Hoytema’s churning camerawork may be lucid, but that doesn’t solve the puzzle of Nolan’s inability to tell a story cohesively.


DUNKIRK ★★

(3/4 stars)

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy

Running time: 106 mins.


To tell this one, he trebles the saga of Dunkirk into a trio of tales—one called “The Mole” follows the efforts to board the troops on vessels floating off the wreckage of launching docks. The second part, called “The Sea,” centers on the day-long efforts of fishing boats and seaman’s yachts commanded by volunteers determined to transport survivors home through a 26-mile stretch of the English Channel. Part Three follows two pilots as they provide cover against the attacking planes of the Luftwaffe. Critics are raving about the way Nolan tosses around the bits and pinches of the triptych like the ingredients in a stew. My reaction was somewhat different. Jerking and leaping back and forth from one setup to the next like a leap frog gave me nothing less than the cinematic equivalent of a gigantic case of motion sickness.

The biggest problem with Dunkirk is that it is impossible to decipher almost everything anyone is saying. Special mention must be made of Hans Zimmer’s cacophonous music, which is so deafening it even drowns out the roar of bombs and artillery. I left in need of both ear plugs and a Dramamine. The movie is being shown in several unnecessary formats, including 70 mm, 35mm and IMAX. My advice is avoid the ghastly IMAX version which obliterates the soundtrack, poses a dangerous threat to the eardrums, and renders the dialogue undecipherable. Fortunately, this is not a movie about dialogue—but even though it is sparse, must it also be incognizant? Dunkirk is definitely a movie that could benefit from subtitles.