Christopher Nolan’s latest (and some have already called it his greatest) film, Dunkirk, is a war epic about the evacuation of Allied forces from the French seaside during World War Two. The story interweaves action from one week on the beach, one day on a civilian vessel, and one hour in a fighter plane into a non-linear narrative; nevertheless, it is Nolan’s least gimmicky, most clear-cut film, leaning heavily instead on historical accuracy and realism. A healthy number of bright new faces alongside a few more established ones (such as Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy, among many others) recreate the land, sea, and air situation in miniature, pulling out individual tales of selfish survival and heroic self-sacrifice in the war.
The plotting, aside from jumps in time and place, is simple and straightforward: everyone wants to go home or bring the soldiers home safely. In his debut performance, Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy, a young English soldier who tries desperately to get home as soon as he can but witnesses and suffers through countless obstacles, such as dodging enemy gunfire and escaping from sinking destroyers. Completely bereft of his squadron at the start of the film, he forms a silent bond with a fellow soldier named Gibson (Anearin Barnard) and later saves another named Alex (Harry Styles). With Tommy’s character, there is great inner conflict among soldierly duty, human compassion, and the drive for self-preservation that echoes throughout the film.
The drama on the seas focuses on a civilian father and son, played by Rylance and newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney respectively, and an eager, young tag-along played by Barry Keoghan. Part of a fleet of civilian vessels commandeered by the navy to aid in the evacuation in Dunkirk, the group makes their way across the Channel, picking up the sole survivor of a U-Boat attack (Cillian Murphy) who warns them to turn back toward British shores immediately. However, Rylance’s character has no real crisis of cowardice, even when someone on the boat gets gravely injured, but he continues bravely on course, inspiring his son. He also provides a little bit of a military lesson about Spitfires as the RAF flies overhead.
Lastly, Tom Hardy (yet again spending most of his screen-time hidden by a mask) and Jack Lowden (who looks very much like a cross between Simon Pegg and Michael J. Fox) play two fighter pilots guarding the skies from German bombers targeting the beach and boats below. With scenes that are full of vertiginous shots of the horizon spinning and plummeting, the main tension is a race against the clock as the planes’s fuel lines allow for a mere forty minutes of flying and firing time. The two pilots act as the sole air defence for 400, 000 troops and are forced to make the difficult decision of when to turn back from their unfeasible mission.
There is very minimal dialogue in Dunkirk and the occasional inaudible mumbles and cries are buried beneath the terrific sounds of gunshots, rumbling air raids, and the film’s incredibly tense score (thanks Hans Zimmer!). For a war film, there is also surprisingly little blood loss and virtually no Nazi soldiers shown on-screen, yet it is still appropriately dour and grippingly tense. Perhaps the biggest element in Dunkirk is the immersive atmosphere, created via historically-accurate details and the realism of smaller conflicts (Allied in-fighting and the trickiness of dealing with low tide and shallow shores) alongside the gritty realism and general feeling of helplessness and despair as the army faces endless bombings, gunfire, and sinking ships. There is a grounded moment in the ending as the characters acknowledge that the war has not yet ended and the men have only lived long enough to fight another day but true hope, however, is found not in the technical defeat at Dunkirk but in the celebration of very British qualities (i.e. resolutely keeping a stiff upper lip and loving queues and tea) and the meaningful return to home.
Ratings (out of 5):
Overall Average: 4