Dunkirk Review: A Hollow Film Presented In Superfluous Timelines

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In the second world war, over 4 lakh British and other Allied troops were cornered by the German forces near Dunkerque (French). Cut-off from the supply line, these men faced massacre at the hands of advancing German troops. Churchill put forward a huge evacuation operation Dynamo to save Allied troops.

Apart from Navy ships, hundreds of civilian boats participated in the evacuation and Britain successfully manage to bring home around 2 lakh of its own along with 1 lakh 40 thousand French and Belgians. With basic information out of the way, let’s get onto the movie.


Dunkirk is Nolan’s first war film. So far, he has given us great movies such as The Prestige, Inception, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. He is exceptionally good at non-linear story telling. It worked great for Memento and Inception.

Dunkirk does the same trick. The film features three timelines. The first one covers foot-soldiers on the beaches waiting for the evacuation. This timeline stretches over a week. The second timeline covers a civilian vessel, which has come to aid the evacuation along with hundreds of other non-military ships. This narration lasts for a day. The last timeline featuring RAF (Royal Air Force) pilots, covers just about an hour.

Dunkirk boats

The problem is that the disjoint story arch does not work with Dunkirk at all. Why would you want to convolute a simple story anyway? It is not a psychological crime thriller or a science fiction film. By forcing down the disjointed narrative down our throats, Nolan blew away any chance of character development.

The lack of back-stories is fine, but the movie also lacks chemistry or bonding between the characters. In such setting, it is almost impossible to feel strong empathy for those on the screen. Therefore, Dunkirk never achieves the intensity of Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Hacksaw Ridge. Another problem with the non-linear approach is that the scenes abruptly jump between a night and a day.

Dunkirk RAF

As you would have guessed already, these three timelines overlap in the end to make the audience believe that all the random scenes they watched for over an hour, have some meaning. Unfortunately, by that time, I felt like this gentleman from the film.

There’s nothing wrong on the acting front though. In fact, Mark Rylance has done a great job in portraying a wise old man risking his life to ferry soldiers across the channel in his yacht. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are convincing as RAF pilots. Aneurin Barnard and Fionn Whitehead too have made most of their screen time.

Nolan’s films are known for excellent cinematography, and Dunkirk is no exception. Hoyte van Hoytema has delivered brilliant imagery of the vast landscape. To truly appreciate the visuals, you need to watch this movie in an IMAX cinema hall. The bleak and never ending beaches and vast seas, are haunting. To set the gloomy mood, the film uses pronounced blues. This isn’t something new, as Alfonso Cuaron made effective use of colour grading to portray bleak future in Children of Men. Unlike Curon though, Nolan has overdone the technique. So much that some scenes look surreal due to the prominent blue colour. This somewhat negates the crew’s painstaking efforts to make uniforms, weaponry, and vehicles look authentic

Another weird thing about the movie is that the beach looks surprisingly empty for over three lakh stranded men. At any point in the movie, you barely get to see a few hundred of at best a thousand soldiers. It puzzles me to see that despite the budget of over 100 million dollars, Nolan failed to present the true scale of the operation. On the other hand, a low-budget British film, Atonement, did a superior job of bringing Dunkirk to life. And it is not even a war movie. Check out the visuals from Atonement in the video embedded below:

One of the brightest points of the movie is its foley work. The rattling of a Spitfire aircraft and soul-piercing sound of dive bombers feels authentically harsh.

Overall, Dunkirk is a technically brilliant film but has no soul. I love the footage shot by IMAX cameras. It is great to see Nolan avoid CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) as much as possible because it is going to help the film age well.

In Dunkirk, thousands of Allied troops died and there must have been some interesting stories to be told. However, Nolan hand-picked the most boring ones and presented them in a mangled timeline.

With no characters to care about, Dunkirk feels like BBC’s Planet Earth, which is excellent to look at but gets boring after a while.

Rating: 3/5

Chandrakant 'CK' Isi

Technology editor, movie buff, and wannabe space explorer.