It may seem like the only people in Christopher Nolan’s new World War II film “Dunkirk” are Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and, of course, Harry Styles. Headlines surrounding the film have been overwhelming with phrases like “Yes, Harry Styles Can Act!” and “Can Tom Hardy Win An Oscar for Dunkirk?”
Upon seeing the film, which is absolutely Nolan’s best, it becomes clear that there is no real lead in “Dunkirk.” The story is split between three storylines that star various floppy haired Brits with impeccable bone structure, many of whom will look infuriatingly familiar to anyone who has ever watched a British period drama or BBC miniseries.
While the more well-known actors like Rylance, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy add gravitas to their various storylines, it’s the younger actors who make the film what it is. So for a moment, let’s forget about Harry Styles – who, for what it’s worth, is very good – and focus on the other young actors who are likely to jump from “Dunkirk” to stardom.
First up is Fionn Whitehead, who is as close as “Dunkirk” comes to having a lead role. In his first film role, Whitehead’s character — officially listed as Tommy, though we never hear his name — represents the everyman soldier, terrified for his life and desperate to survive. The role is the opposite of showy and yet Whitehead stands out in his subtlety, especially compared to Styles’ more talkative character Alex.
Irish actor Barry Keoghan has one of the more sympathetic storylines in the film as George, an eager 17-year-old who hops onto Rylance’s boat as it sails to Dunkirk to pick up stranded soldiers. While his role in the film is small — as are all of the roles, arguably — Keoghan brings emotional resonance to one of the film’s biggest twists. Fans of indie film will be seeing his face again soon, as he stars in director Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which is out later this fall.
Aneurin Barnard is one of many period drama and miniseries veterans in “Dunkirk.” Viewers may recognize him from BBC’s recent, highly underrated “War & Peace” adaptation or from Starz’s “The White Queen.” He speaks only a few words in “Dunkirk,” but like many of his colleagues, his physical and nonverbal performance is as memorable as they come.
Scotsman and BBC veteran Jack Lowden is on the cusp of a major Hollywood breakthrough, and “Dunkirk” may be the final stepping stone that gets him there. An Olivier-winning stage actor, Lowden starred with Barnard in “War & Peace” and also made an appearance with Rylance in BBC’s “Wolf Hall.” His role as a Royal Air Force pilot in “Dunkirk” is one of the more thrilling performance – he and Hardy swoop through the clouds in pursuit of Nazi bombers in a particularly thrilling scene. Lowden will join Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in “Mary Queen of Scots” next year and play the Smiths’ frontman Morrissey in the upcoming biopic “England Is Mine.”
These main characters aren’t the only ones who may look annoyingly familiar to fans of overseas productions. Michael Fox of “Downton Abbey” has a bit role as a Dunkirk engineer, and Kevin Guthrie of “Sunset Song” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” plays a highlander who joins Tommy and Alex in their crusade to get off the beach.
In short, “Dunkirk” is a thrilling cinematic achievement that may serve as a boost to a number of talented young actors. But, if you have trouble telling generically attractive white boys apart, good luck.
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