I’ll be the first to say it: Dunkirk! is the most heartwarming family film of the decade. And if you have a love of animals, or an interest in man’s unique relationship with dogs, you absolutely have to see this film.
Dunkirk! follows the story of old Uncle Shuckburgh (Michael Caine) who has a close relationship with Dunkirk, his golden retriever.
Shuckburgh’s brother died on the beaches of Dunkirk in World War II, and Uncle Shuckburgh has named every dog he’s owned over the years after that fateful historical event. It’s one of his many English eccentricities.
The movie flashes back to the late 1930s to see Shuckburgh and his brother growing up together in prewar England. Through these scenes I got a sense of the two brothers strong sibling bond as well as their passionate love for dogs and accompanying red hot hatred of cats.
Back in the present day, Uncle Shuckburgh begins to find he’s having more and more trouble remembering things. He’s less up to completing simple tasks, like picking up his dog’s doo doo with a plastic bag on their afternoon excursions. He tries to play off these little incidents like it’s nothing, but his kids (Anne Hathaway and Christian Bale) can’t help but notice, and insist that he see a doctor.
In the moments preceding Uncle Shuckburgh’s appointment with the doctor, we get a few brief glimpses of what happened to the old man’s brother in the war. The trailers for the movie are entirely composed of these momentary flashbacks, leading some to mistakenly believe Dunkirk! is a war film. But as I watched this sequence, I realized Uncle Shuckburgh had fantasized visions of what he was told happened to his brother.
After the examination, the good-humored Dr. Robinson (Cillian Murphy) delivers the family some bad news. Uncle Shuckburgh has a rapidly advancing case of dementia. The rest of the film deals with the fallout of this diagnosis, focused mainly on Uncle Shuckburgh’s struggle to keep custody of Dunkirk against the gentle reprimands of his family and eventually the legal demands of animal services.
In the end, Uncle Shuckburgh befriends a young man (Joseph Gordon Levitt) whose love of dogs and manner of speaking remind Shuckburgh of his long deceased brother. The two begin an intimate relationship, and as Shuckburgh drifts off into the depths of insanity, he finds final comfort in knowing that someone he trusts will be taking care of Dunkirk after he’s gone.
It’s a simple tale, but it’s expertly crafted by the most acclaimed filmmaker of our generation: Christopher Nolan. Having already tried his hand at sci-fi (Interstellar), sci-fi action (Inception), superhero action (The Dark Knight trilogy), period piece (The Prestige), mystery (Memento), and mindbending cerebral drama with a strong female lead (Insomnia), it was inevitable that Nolan would next turn his attention to the most timeless genre of all: the animal-driven family film.
Nolan’s signatures are present in nearly every frame of the movie, from the non-linear structure (the film jumps back and forth between multiple timelines) to his use of light and darkness and the contrast between the two to show Uncle Shuckburgh’s decay and Dunkirk’s growth and maturation, sometimes all within one scene.
Plus, Nolan films his lead beautifully. Dunkirk is a gorgeous specimen of a dog, and we get to see him the way he was meant to be viewed: in the enormous 70mm cinema format.
Nolan’s characteristic use of rich colors (such as in the golden Dunkirk’s lustrous yellow brown fur) and deep shadows (cast across the Dunkirk’s fur) are juxtaposed with big, epic landscapes. This is especially true during the sequence when Shuckburgh gets lost with Dunkirk on one of their wanders. Thankfully Dunkirk keeps his composure even as his owner becomes increasingly demented and confused.
Another Nolan trademark stood out in the many shots in which he places the camera behind Dunkirk. This allows those of us in the audience to “see” from the dog’s perspective.
Thankfully, Nolan does not chicken out and rely on fake computer generated effects to animate Dunkirk or anything else in the movie. I can assure you, having seen it with my own two eyes, Dunkirk! uses strictly practical effects to achieve its undeniable magic.
TL;DR – Dunkirk! is an emotionally satisfying film for the whole family, masterfully delivered by the one-of-a-kind visionary Christopher Nolan in full command of his craft and brought to life by a gifted cast that honors man’s eternal love of dogs.
What the rest of the critics are saying:
“Dunkirk!‘s plot is fairly uncomplicated. The thrill is in getting to know the golden retriever and his doddering owner in such sensuous detail.” – Tufayel Ahmed, Newsweek
“Director Christopher Nolan delivers this summer’s most precisely crafted family film in the simultaneously inspiring and devastating Dunkirk!” – George “Ramble” Bortz, Arizona Republic
“It’s a series of riveting tableaux, but the star of the movie is undoubtedly the golden retriever, Dunkirk!” – Rosalthe Sadasga, Entertainment Weekly
“Christopher Nolan’s back, baby, and he’s got a dog movie to show us!” – Eric D. Snider, EricDSnider.com
“Only Christopher Nolan could make a movie starring a dog so cold and lifeless.” – Legs Lavish, New York Observer
“As a film, Dunkirk! is a powerful work from one of the great directors of our time. As a dog, Dunkirk is simply cute as hell to watch.” – Peter Sobczynski, eFilmCritic.com
“Seldom has a film so eloquently captured the craziness of man’s relationship with his proverbial best friend, nor the terror of dementia, and all at the same time to boot.” – Eustachius Wallingford, The Guardian
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