The Allies may have declared victory seven decades earlier, but even today there is insatiable interest in the Second World War. On film, there have been many tales told about the heroism and sacrifice of those who served, yet little has been said about one of the war’s most significant events: the evacuation of British forces from Occupied France.
Dunkirk, named after the town where the majority of these evacuations took place, is split into three storylines, all of which occur at different points in the campaign. “The Mole” is the first storyline introduced, seeing members of the British Army, under the leadership of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), preparing for the arrival of the Naval forces. As the soldiers are queuing on the beachfront, they risk being bombarded by the German air force, while every ship faces the danger of being torpedoed from below.
The second storyline, “The Sea”, focuses on Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian and amateur sailor. The British Navy, has tasked him with sailing his yacht to Dunkirk and collecting as many soldiers as his vessel can carry, before returning home to the safety of England. Storyline number three, “The Air”, sees Royal Air Force pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Harrier (Tom Hardy) flying their Spitfire planes across the English Channel to ward off enemy aircraft and safeguard the British forces below.
Dunkirk is the tenth feature film from much-acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, and the most straightforward. There are no complex characters, no lengthy monologues, no perplexing ideas, and the faces of The Enemy are never shown on-screen. What’s more, the soldiers seldom speak and rarely, if ever, address each other by name. Cillian Murphy’s character, for example, is credited only as “Shivering Soldier”, while the main protagonist, played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead, is referred to simply as Tommy – see what they did there?
Although many of Nolan’s motifs are lacking, the film retains his ability to exhilarate. Practical effects dominate the spectacular action sequences, which are brought to life with the use of actual WWII ships and aircraft. Composer, and regular Nolan contributor, Hans Zimmer increases the tension with his score that sounds not unlike a ticking clock or heartbeat, while the sound mixing and editing – with its loud gunfire, explosions and aircraft engines – adds further to the realism.
It would be remiss of this reviewer not to mention the excellent cast, which includes two of Nolan’s regular collaborators (Murphy, Hardy), some other familiar faces (Rylance, Branagh) and many more unknowns. Included in the latter category is the already-mentioned Whitehead and teen heartthrob Harry Styles, who is making his acting debut. Those who scoffed when told of the pop singer’s casting will be astonished upon seeing the film, for Styles delivers a really good performance, one which suggests he may have a long career ahead of him.
Surprisingly, the most mesmerising part of Dunkirk is not the great cast, nor the realistic beachfront assaults. It is the flying sequences that stand out most, beautifully photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, the cinematographer who previously worked on Spectre and Nolan’s Interstellar. Some of van Hoytema’s shots have the camera mounted to the wing of a Spitfire, giving the audience a clear and fascinating pilot’s view of the dogfights. One might say these scenes appeal because they offer a reprieve from the noise and chaos below.
Nolan has brought much of his expertise to Dunkirk, but he has yet to rescind his most prominent sticking point, that being the way he writes dialogue. Even though the actors deliver their lines eloquently and convincingly, they cannot mask how unnatural and cheesy Nolan’s words are. Having said that, the movie is driven by suspense rather than dialogue, and is not intended to be a study into the human condition – it is more a picture that leaves one longing, egging even, to know whether its protagonists return home.
Dunkirk is, somewhat ironically, a thrilling tale about one of the bleakest moments in Britain’s history. The practical effects, sound editing and cinematography all immerse the viewer in the conflict, which never ceases to be engaging. Moreover, it is yet another example of why Christopher Nolan is one of the most celebrated directors of our age.