Review: Dunkirk

British war cinema is preoccupied it seems with defeat – the stumbling block of the Arnhem campaign in A Bridge Too Far, the sinking of Noel Coward’s destroyer from In Which We Serve, and innumerable plucky POW features, not to  mention the late critic Barry Norman’s father Leslie Norman’s take on the daddy of them all, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk’s beach in 1940. Now Christopher Nolan has turned his sights on that last “miracle of deliverance” to deliver a quite stunning, revolutionary ticking-clock adrenalized thriller with the most moving and uplifting of postscripts to leave you both exhausted and grateful – grateful you weren’t there, and grateful for what was achieved in Britain’s “darkest hour”.

Nolan has made an epic (at 1hr 47 mins no less!), but the tightest, most screwed-down and perfectly crafted exercise in tension, desperation and longing, with little dialogue or exposition, and three distinct timelines that overlap, flip back and forth, and ultimately converge to leave nary a dry eye in the house. There’s not a wasted second of screen time. The audience is thrust immediately and elegantly into the desperate situation, as the screen opens on a handful of Tommies making their way through the deserted streets of Dunkirk. German propaganda leaflets tumble around them, proclaiming the hopelessness of their situation. As shots ring out one squaddie (Fionn Whitehead, Tommy) makes it away by the skin of his teeth, and stumbles onto the beach, from where he hooks up with a silent co-conspirator (Aneurin Barnard, Gibson) in their attempt to leapfrog the endless queues (that most British of pursuits!) onto a medical ship, carrying a stretcher.

So far, so straightforward. Actually, the action is easy to follow, if you pay attention to the minimalist on-screen headings. There are three distinct timelines, as stated earlier – The Mole (relating both to the breakwater used as a dock to load troops from onto destroyers, stretching out to sea like a finger beckoning towards home, but also relating to the beach setting, the events upon which occur over one week); The Sea, relating to the “little ships”, civilian pleasure craft and such with shallow drafts that were commandeered to get men off the beach and onto the larger vessels over the course of one day; and The Air, where Spitfire pilots Tom Hardy (Farrier) and Collins (Jack Lowden) with one hour of fuel attempt to protect both ships making it back to Blighty, and stave off German Stuka dive bombers over Dunkirk. These timelines eventually collide to quite astonishing effect.

Apart from minimal exposition delivered sparingly between Kenneth Branagh’s Royal Navy Commander Bolton, masterminding the evacuation from The Mole, and James D’Arcy’s Colonel Winnant, the senior British Officer seen on screen, the rest of the film is sparsely subjective – we are thrust into the participant’s immediate, visceral viewpoint. Nolan has called the film “experiential” and also likens it to “Virtual Reality without the goggles.” By using large format film for dialogue scenes and IMAX for the rest of the action, there is no discernable flipping between formats to jar the viewer – every tortured decision and effort is magnified in glorious high-res detail in the eyes and visages of our allied avatars. Just watch Hardy’s eyes dart above a mask (yet again!) as he debates whether to hobble back home with a damaged fuel gauge, or engage a bomber approaching men in the water below.

Tommy and Gibson hook up with Harry Styles’ Alex (only Gibson is named, ambiguously), making various desperate attempts to get home. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lens loves their haunted, pinched, and most of all, young, faces – the white’s of Gibson’s eyes bulging in the flame illuminated dusk, as big as the moon as he wearily waits on deck, not yet believing that he’s safe. Or Style’s desperation as he’s pulled away from a ship’s sinking hull, closing on the Mole’s structure.

In The Moonstone, Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson sets sail himself rather than have the navy take over his boat, accompanied by his 19-year-old son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and last second unplanned addition 17-year-old friend George (Barry Keoghan), determined to make his mark in an otherwise unremarkable life. In many ways, he is the beating heart of the film. The motley crew pick up a shell-shocked officer, Cillian Murphy, along the way, whose panic has fateful repercussions. We later (earlier) see him in full control of his faculties, giving a fresh insight into how war can affect those caught up in it. “He may never be the same again, ” the stoically dutiful Mr Dawson tells the boys.

With its Dutch angles as ships tilt and capsize, and actors in real Spitfire cockpits (and mockups) thrown around by G-forces as they bank and dive after marauding Messerschmitts, the audience is thrust thrillingly into the middle of the melee. Quieter moments of reflection also impact, as a soldier silently walks into the foamy brine, believing perhaps he can just walk home. We never see “The enemy” – they are referenced as just that. Producer Emma Thomas states, “You don’t need to see them. It’s such a simple notion, what these people were going through – tanks and soldiers over there, planes above, submarines and mines below – that’s all you need to know really. When you think about Jaws, you don’t need to see the shark to understand the threat of it.”

A few creative divergences aside, the film hews closely to historical accuracy, but then again, this isn’t a history lesson, it’s a movie, and a moving one at that – by maybe overemphasizing the myth of the little ships deliverance, Nolan brings all(?) his boys home in one elegiac, Elgar score-referencing tour de force finale that simply left me breathless, intercut as it is with a weary Tommy (but which one, eh?) reading Churchill’s historic Commons address from a newspaper. To quote Samuel Fuller’s autobiographical and unsentimental wartime memoir, The Big Red One“The real glory of war is surviving.”

This is masterful film-making, formats be damned – the man has made a film daringly radical, almost retrograde silent-era in parts (and a lot less gimmicky than silent experiment The Artist) – pure cinema, an across the board art house and popcorn muncher crowd pleaser. Is there anything he can’t do?

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