The title of “Dunkirk” tells you what you are about to see: The story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk during 1940.
Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight Rises”) is known for using a non-linear method of storytelling. He does that again here as he gives the audience a look at a week during World War II when the Germans drove British and French soldiers to the sea in northern France.
First, if you’re not a World War II buff, you might not know that the word “mole” has a different meaning here (normally, in a war movie, I think of a spy when I hear the word “mole” being used.) During the evacuation of the British and French troops at Dunkirk, two concrete jetties secured the beach. These jetties were known as “moles.”
Because of the Germans’ bombing, the harbor couldn’t be used – big ships couldn’t get to soldiers on the beach. So it was decided to evacuate the soldiers off the “east mole,” which had deep water on both sides.
The film begins with Tommy, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead, television’s “Him”) who escapes a German ambush and makes it to the Dunkirk beach. He and another young man pretend they are stretcher bearers so they can have passage on a ship loading the wounded.
That doesn’t work, but still they keep trying to cross the Channel.
The Navy begins to commandeer boats that belong to civilians, including a craft that belongs to a man named Dawson (Academy-Award-winning Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies.”) Dawson wants to steer the ship himself, with his son and another young man on board.
They rescue a shipwrecked sailor (Cillian Murphy, “Inception”) who refuses to return to Dunkirk.
Above, British pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) are involved in a dogfight with German planes in attempt to protect the ships as well as the soldiers on the beach.
Not surprisingly, Nolan’s direction is deft, putting the audience in the midst of the action with stories set on land, in the sea and in the air – he pivots from environment to environment, picking up the pace as the conclusions draws near. Composer Hans Zimmer sets his score against a ticking clock, which keeps viewers’ pulses quickened.
You won’t see individual character development here as much as you will see reactions to situations – a sinking plane, for example.
It is a war story with grit and realism, whose plot never is bogged down by sentimentality.