As the name indicates, the film is about the 1940 retreat by the British and Allied armies from the beaches of France. The war epic was directed by Christopher Nolan, and marks the first time he has made a British film since the early years of his career. For an epic, it’s pretty short (106 minutes).
What the film is really good at is showing how young the soldiers actually were, which few war films really do—so many of them were just teenagers. The cast includes Jack Lowden and even One Direction’s Harry Styles (who is actually quite good), with Fionn Whitehead in the lead role of Tommy (also the slang name for ordinary British soldiers). It’s his first film role, and he plays it well. Nolan deliberately chose young, less well-known actors for these key roles, to give his characters an air of awkwardness and inexperience that matched the young troops.
The higher-ups are played by esteemed actors like Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. The best performance is probably from Cillian Murphy, who really brings across the damaged quality of a man suffering from shell-shock/PTSD. There are basically three different stories that intertwine: the experiences of the ground troops; the events at sea during the evacuation, which is mostly seen through the eyes of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance); and the air battle that was taking place above.
Interestingly, Nolan is someone who does not like using much CGI, even on something like a Batman film. So most of what you see is in-camera effects, with a small amount of very seamless CGI. Nolan used as many real Spitfires and period boats as possible, giving it a very authentic feel. Also, 75 percent the film was shot on IMAX film stock, so it has the epic scope that you hope for with a film of this sort. On Blu-Ray, the IMAX footage is obviously when the image fills the screen. The aerial photography is great, and it was shot on location in Dunkirk. It’s a very visual film, with dialogue very much secondary: Nolan’s script was quite slim at 75 pages.
The one criticism I would have is that there is not much realistic violence—no blood, for example—which detracts from realism. But it’s an impressive combat movie about an enormous failure by the Brits that nonetheless included a great deal of heroism by ordinary people.
Dunkirk is a rare, big-budget bit still arty war epic, something not often seen. Nolan has enough industry credibility that he can get away with about anything, and this will add to it. The score by Hans Zimmer, who can sometimes go over the top with his bombastic compositions, works well—it’s a big score but it punctuates the desperation that the characters are experiencing.
There’s a bonus disc with a little over an hour and half of various featurettes covering the creation and the conclusion, with specific featurettes on the land, air and sea portions of the film.