I know what you’re thinking … This is a feminist publication! Why am I reading about Dunkirk?
Sure, it’s a depiction of World War II British warfare, and thus, understandably doesn’t have a single female role (aside from the occasional nurse). But I would argue that we cannot criticise depictions of femininity if we do not uphold the same scrutiny for portrayals of men, particularly in a film that celebrates what it means to be a man.
To begin, I would like to say that Dunkirk was, in many senses, a triumph of cinema. Christopher Nolan’s cinematography was excellent, capturing the scale and brutality of a war with almost frightening realism. The film was akin to Titanic, showing snippets of humanity in an enormous tragedy, although the emphasis was on friendship rather than romance.
There was, however, one glaring problem with the casting. And it was a simple problem. The soldiers they chose were all, quite simply, too attractive. It was a strange criticism to have, as someone who is usually very pleased with having some eye-candy in these male-oriented action dramas. Nonetheless, the film showed two kinds of soldiers fighting for the British army: older, distinguished looking gentlemen and high-cheekboned, big-eyed youths that would not have been out of place as catalogue models. Indeed, the only character who was neither distinguished nor overly handsome was George – an actor played by Barry Keoghan, who was somewhere between a comic relief and a pathetic sideman for more manly characters to show their softer side to. There seems to be no debate: Britishness, bravery and masculinity are attributes of the very good-looking or those who obviously once were.
With all our talk of depictions of women in the media, rarely is an argument put forth that the actors in a film are too attractive. In this case, however, while Nolan tried to preserve the realism of the film by casting mainly unknowns, the choice to mainly cast a certain ‘style’ of actor detracts from the authenticity of an otherwise powerful film. I understand it must have been difficult to cast a group as homogeneous as the British soldiers at Dunkirk, but the overload of youthful beauty was unrealistic enough to be distracting. Yes, there are no roles for women or PoC, as is reasonable given the context … but would it have been so impossible to cast a few normal-looking men? After all, isn’t the evacuation at Dunkirk celebrated precisely because of the relative ‘normalcy’ of the British who answered the call?
My criticism is a small chink in the armour of a tour de force in the cinematic world. It is still worth noting that, had this film displayed mainly women, a cast of such unrealistic physical beauty would have been torn apart. I believe it is important, in the name of equality, to call out such double standards in the media depictions of various genders. Hopefully, one day soon, men and woman and everyone in between will be able to go to a film and be greeted by realistic representations of physical beauty.
Film: 4.5 stars.
Casting: one star.