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For Your Consideration: 'Dunkirk'

Mark Rylance in Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan

Director Christopher Nolan's previous movies have ranged from the intriguing (Memento, The Prestige) to the over-budgeted and overblown (Inception, yet more installments of the Batman franchise). He has reportedly long wanted to make a film about the evacuation of British armed forces from the French beaches at Dunkirk in 1940, and his box office successes gave him the opportunity. The taut, simplified, but effective Dunkirk, which opened over the weekend, is the result.

Fitting the story into the film's 106-minute span required streamlining. The other participants in the vast battle and evacuation (French, Belgians, Canadians) are largely ignored, and we experience the events mostly through a chaotic tangle of unexpected characters, sometimes hard to keep straight. A hapless British soldier, Tommy, played both naive and level-headed by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, manages to get to the beach and tries like many of the characters just to save his skin and get away. A trio of Spitfire pilots takes off for Dunkirk, where they try to protect British craft in the waters from the air (thrillingly shot in low-tech splendor), with the exploits of Farrier (played expressively by Tom Hardy, in spite of having his face almost always covered by an oxygen mask in the cockpit) proving the most important. Nolan's terse screenplay is full of silences.

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Representing the famous little ships of Dunkirk, the private watercraft requisitioned by the Royal Navy and mostly piloted by their officers, is Mr. Dawson. This older character, who pilots the English Channel in dress shirt and tie, is given life and depth by the incomparable Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall), as he takes the helm of his own boat with his teenage son (another newcomer, Tom Glynn-Carney) and young friend (Barry Keoghan). The three narrative threads overlap, with characteristic Nolan-esque time shifts, unified especially around another fine performance, that of Kenneth Branagh as a naval commander overseeing the evacuation.

These little stories, though told in a compelling way, do not add up to an appreciation of the entire battle, leaving me feeling a little cheated at the end. The cinematography (Hoyte Van Hoytema) is unfailingly beautiful, shot in large format film for IMAX and capturing grand vistas better than intimate scenes. (Watching this movie on a large screen is essential.) The sound, especially the occasional screaming of fighter planes, is hard to take. Hans Zimmer's score struck me mostly as pedestrian, often little more than a pulsating unison in one instrument or another. The only moment of musical grandeur is stolen from Elgar's "Nimrod" movement from Enigma Variations, predictably perhaps but to powerful effect.

Dunkirk is playing at theaters everywhere.

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