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March 20, 2023

Movie review: Nolan's ambitious, alluring 'Dunkirk' lacks characters

“Dunkirk” is director Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film and it is without a doubt his most fresh and innovative piece of storytelling. There’s not much dialogue, the characters — in terms of background, depth and personality — are underdeveloped and the experimental manner in which he presents the timeline is a bit confusing. It’s not all great — some of it is actually less than OK — but there’s a certain charm to the risks that Nolan and his team take.

It’s an untraditional and realistic look at war and survival. There are no heroes that plunge through the line and dodge millions of bullets as dozens of their friends are being mowed down — heck, most of the protagonists never fire a gun — but that sense of futility is what carries the pace and the action.

“Dunkirk” is the retelling of the famed Battle of Dunkirk in which Nazi Germany pushed into France and surrounded the Allied forces on the beaches as they waited for evacuation. Nolan tells this story in three interwoven parts: land, sea and air. The story on land is told over a week, sea is told over a day and air is depicted in an hour. It’s easy enough to follow along during the opening third but gets a bit messy when the three come to a head in the latter portion.

Like mentioned before, there’s hardly any dialogue and Nolan’s show-don’t-tell method works beautifully in a vast majority of moments. The sights and sounds are eerie and Hans Zimmer’s score, masterfully sprinkled into the background from time to time, only heightens the tension. When the bombs are falling or the ships are sinking (and they sink, a lot), there are no corny expositional lines of dialogue that flood other war films. This helps the beautifully-shot action take center stage and it also keeps the film well entrenched into reality. Soldiers aren’t barking out orders or cracking one-liners because they’re honestly shell shocked.

But the lack of dialogue also diminishes any chance of character development. Sure, the motivation of survival is there and that alone is enough to make a character likable and have the audience root for them. But it also made a majority of the protagonists feel paper thin. Mark Rylance’s (“Bridge of Spies,” “The BFG”) Mr. Dawson is the lone character that has sticking power from start to finish. Tom Hardy, Fionn Whitehead and Barry Keoghan also give solid performances but aren’t given many moments to showcase their acting chops — although Hardy and Jack Lowden do perform some amazing eye-only acting.

I don’t think Nolan did this by mistake. I think he wanted the war and impending sense of mortality to be the overpowering star. I think he wanted to do the tragic situation justice and was OK with letting the fictional characters suffer. It’s ambitious and Nolan deserves credit for challenging the norm. But I wish I cared a little bit more when people were in danger.



1. “Dunkirk”: $50,500,000 (Week 1); Warner Bros.
2. “Girl’s Trip”: $30,370,720 (Week 1); Universal.
3. “Spider-Man: Homecoming”: $22,010,000 (Week 3); Sony. Total gross: $251,711,581.
4. “War for the Planet of the Apes”: $20,400,000 (Week 2); Fox. Total gross: $97,750,914.
5. “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”: $17,020,000 (Week 1); STX.

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