“Dunkirk” is etched into the memory of older English generations. A military retreat but considered a victory, saving some 338,000 allied troops from incarceration or death, at the hands of the advancing German army.
A massive canvas on which to paint a cinematic story that few directors could do justice. Step forward director Christopher Nolan, director of Batman, Interstellar and Inception, who better to work on this scale?
The story is familiar, following defeats the British Expeditionary force and French troops, were effectively surrounded, at the very edge of the English Channel at Dunkirk.
Unable to move forward or back, the troops were trapped. As the tagline says, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them”. An armada of civilian ships, large and small sailing across the channel, saving as many as they could carry.
Troops and ships were under regular Luftwaffe strafing, bombing and U-Boat attack, as men waited patiently on the beach. So a story well known and with an ending not in doubt, is there possibility for cinematic tension?
With 106 minutes of sustained chaos as young men make decisions arbitrarily determining whether they live or die, there is tension to spare.
From the very start, Nolan hurls you into a maelstrom of sound. Gunshots split the air and dreaded Stuka bombers dive with sirens blaring. Ordered lines of men waiting to be taken off the beach, momentarily scatter only to quietly reform afterwards, minus the men killed in the latest attack.
Soldiers gently nudging aside dead bodies as they queue in the water, respectful but not wanting them near. There are many trapped in water scenes that will trigger claustrophobic fears, all expertly ratcheted to maximise tension without feeling overblown.
Make this choice and drown, or another and live. Swim to a minesweeper and safety, only to have it sink on top of you, finally reach a ship only to be torpedoed.
The film also centres on one family’s quest to help, led by Mark Rylance, casting off from Weymouth in a small boat and the reverberations of that decision.
In a world of cinematic CGI, the film feels very real and is helped by some fantastic aerial sequences with real Spitfires and Messerschmitt 109. If the sight of real Spitfires in a dogfight fails to get your blood pumping, then nothing will. Tom Hardy & Jack Lowden are strong in this sequence, despite wearing helmets & goggles through much of the action.
Many sequences are shown from multiple view points and times, initially confusing but helps to show different perspectives. This allows a scene to be used multiple times, which from a budget and practical stand point makes sense.
The film has minimal dialogue, most of the characters including an excellent Fionn Whitehead and Cillian Murphy are so shell-shocked, they barely talk at all. The stunt casting of Harry Styles actually works well, a further career is certainly possible. Kenneth Branagh is stoic and presents a stiff upper lip and gets the best line about when the tide will arrive.
Iconic images abound but there is no glorification of war or excessive on screen blood letting. More a commemoration of the sacrifices young men made, to enable us to complain about broadband speeds and other first world problems in 2017.
In an age where superheroes abound on every screen, it is humbling to see real heroes and the perils they faced. Young men, almost boys really, born into a generation with a sense of duty.
Rarely has the chaos, randomness and sheer terror of war been better captured on film. Arguably matching Spielberg’s first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, then adding another 86 minutes.
An instant classic, go watch it on the biggest screen you can.