May / June 1940: Depicting the true story of the Dunkirk evacuations, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is an interpretation of what happened to the soldiers from France, Belgium and the British Empire in that port town in northern France. Cut off by land, sea and air, the Allies are surrounded and the only possible way out is by sea (best of a bad situation). The Royal Navy calls in the civilian boats. The need is dire, as the Allies look doomed and desperate on all fronts. This is that story, told from the perspectives of two RAF pilots, soldiers on land and some civilians on their boat who came to help the men on the beaches and how they beat the odds of impending doom.
“What has happened is a colossal military disaster” says Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the first character we’re introduced to in this film, seen running with his comrades from heavy German fire and then scaling fences as his friends are cut down. From the start, Christopher Nolan’s wartime drama is unrelenting and ruthless. It never gives you time for a breather. Nearly every shot is an experience that is either leaving audiences on their edges of their seats or with a lump in their throat. Christopher Nolan has accomplished a great deal with Dunkirk, but I haven’t been this emotionally-tested in a film since J. A. Bayona delivered The Impossible in 2012.
Dunkirk doesn’t really have a conventional plot like most movies do. Dunkirk itself is the plot. It’s a depiction of this event, and it’s told through numerous perspectives from many different characters. The event itself is the film’s vehicle and allows the characters to show us the event rather than vice versa. This is all accomplished by various characters showing the effects of what happened there from the various points of view. e.g. land, air and sea. Yet, they all arrive at the same conclusion. And the performances involved remained consistent throughout, with much praise deservedly being sent to debut stars Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles as soldiers, Tommy and Alex.
Christopher Nolan never really puts a foot wrong in the casting department. Whilst we had inexperienced actors in lead roles (Whitehead and Styles), we also had Aneurin Barnard (Submarine) as Gibson. He doesn’t say much, but neither do any of the other characters. He’s not a well-known actor but he’s done a fair bit, including playing Richard III in The White Queen. I’m increasingly becoming a fan of Jack Lowden (A United Kingdom) as well. In Nolan’s Dunkirk, again, like the rest of the cast, he gives a solid performance, playing Collins, an RAF fighter pilot.
Furthermore, in the acting departments, we had household names as well. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) plays Mr Dawson, a civilian who goes to Dunkirk to help the stranded. Tom Hardy (Taboo) is an eye in the sky. James D’Arcy (Broadchurch) and five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Brannagh (Hamlet) play Colonel Winnant and Commander Bolton. Much akin to the other big names, Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) gives a great performance as a shell-shocked soldier who comes into contact with Mark Rylance.
Dunkirk is a cinema experience that I will keep with me forever. Having seen it in both standard 2D and IMAX 2D, IMAX is the only way to watch this film. If you can get to an IMAX screen, I say go for it, because I believe that when it comes to DVD and BluRay this film will not be the same. I will see this film as many times as I can on a cinema screen. It’s one cinema experience that will stay with long after the credits roll.
Dunkirk may have been funded by Warner Bros, but this is still a very British film, better yet, a European venture. It shows the European side of World War Two. When we think war drama, we often think to the US, as most of these films are from their perspective. Whether we’re talking Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Patton or even Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, America has dominated the genre for a long time. Now, Christopher Nolan (Inception) has written and directed a story that shows Britain’s viewpoint. Whilst the US had Pearl Harbour, the UK and the Allies had Dunkirk, and Dunkirk depicts one of the worst military disasters in human history.
Dunkirk shows this defeat from a mostly-English point of view, I don’t think the French or the Irish are happy about that! It shows us that it wasn’t the high-ranking officers who saved the soldiers. Nor was it the soldiers who saved themselves. It was the civilians, but “we have a job to do” says Mr Dawson (Rylance). It’s not about soldiers looking for glory. It’s about community heroism (Dawson and co.) and how small acts from everyday folk at home came to save “their boys” from the Nazi threat. Dunkirk is still a big deal in the UK and I believe Christopher Nolan did it justice. And in a disconnected world, this film is a timely one, that says: unity is needed, now and forever.
Using very little dialogue, this is very much a visual story; and it’s done to perfection. From the cast to the cinematography to the musical score by Lord Zimmer, Dunkirk is as much Hans Zimmer’s film as Nolan’s film as the cast’s film. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets nominated for a few golden statues in January or February next year in the Oscar race.