With a unique plot structure, phenomenal cinematography and sound editing, and an engaging cast, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a truly excellent film which highlights how the actions people take – no matter how small – can make a huge difference in the lives of others.

Centering on the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk, in the second year of World War II, Dunkirk’s narrative unfolds through three stories: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young soldier trying to escape Nazi bombardment on the beach at Dunkirk; Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) a civilian boat owner who makes the perilous trek across the English Channel to help ferry soldiers back to Britain; and Ferrier (Tom Hardy), a pilot traveling to provide the English army relief from Nazi air attacks on the beach.

These three stories begin in a staggered timeline, with Tommy’s beginning a week before the final confrontation, with Mr. Dawson’s and Ferrier’s sections beginning one day and one hour before the climax, respectively. This structure takes a bit of time to get used to as they cycle through them with little notice and it isn’t until scenes and events begin overlapping that the audience can truly see the causal links between the stories. In one of the earlier Ferrier scenes, we see a battleship and a small fishing craft sinking, the crews of each swimming desperately to escape the oil-covered waters between them toward a third boat. It isn’t until the last third of the film that we see who was on the three ships, why, how they got there, and why they were sinking.

This narrative structure can be disjointing, especially near the beginning, but it creates a pronounced feeling of suspense that, were everything aligned chronologically, would have been lacking.

Tommy’s story is marked by an almost complete lack of dialogue and soundtrack, instead relying on equally deafening silence and environmental sounds – with the occasional bouts of gunfire. Mr. Dawson’s story, on the other hand, is much less about survival than it is about the character development and small, individual conflicts – all of which come to a head when they pick up a shell-shocked British soldier (Cillian Murphy) from the wreck of his torpedoed cruiser.

Without exception, the cast of the film play their roles with genuine intensity – even that of former One Direction vocalist Harry Styles, whose addition to the cast was eyebrow-raising to say the least. The addition of Kenneth Branagh as British Commander Bolton is nuanced, despite his relative lack of screen time, and Tom Hardy’s selfless Ferrier scenes are brilliantly put together, avoiding some of the shaky-camera motion sickness aerial dogfights can sometimes rely on to enhance the “action.”

Dunkirk is a singular film about an intriguing event in our collective history. The film, supported by Nolan’s unique vision, focuses on the real, human conflict rather than the spectacle of war – a choice which sets the film apart from others of its genre in the best way.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Rated PG-13 for intense war experience and some language
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Release Date: July 21 2017 (USA)
Runtime: 1h 46min
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