War films, almost always by necessity and design, tend to be brash, gung-ho, sometimes over-romanticised stories of heroism and bravado; World War 2 films generally tell tales of plucky Tommies fighting the good fight against the hideous Nazi war machine. Dunkirk, however, is most determinedly not a flag-waving jingoistic rose-tinted account of a bravely-fought military campaign. Dunkirk, the latest movie by Christopher Nolan (and his first film since 2002’s Insomnia to move away from the fantasy/science-fiction genres – although you’re quite welcome to call 2006’s The Prestige a genre film if you’re so inclined) takes us back to 1940 and an event which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “a colossal military disaster”, when hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops found themselves stranded on the beach at Dunkirk in France, caught in a pincer movement by a rapidly-advancing German Army. More accurately, the film tells of the extraordinary moment in British history when the British-at-home, at Churchill’s exhortation, took to the sea in a flotilla of tiny and insignificant boats, fishing smacks, yachts and lifeboats – “the little fleet of Dunkirk” - to rescue the trapped soldiers waiting anxiously on the beaches for the arrival of British destroyers to ferry them back to safety. Meanwhile, the German Luftwaffe are in the air fighting ferociously against the RAF as they attempt to protect the stranded soldiers from attack.
Dunkirk has been on Nolan’s movie radar for over two decades and we must all be thankful that he bided his time before taking on the most ambitious, breath-taking and, yes, important film of his career. Dunkirk is really nothing short of brilliant, a film which allows Nolan to play to his strengths whilst avoiding many of the outlandish narrative extravagances and visual excesses which have marred many of his previous efforts. Dunkirk is a drama but there’s a rich vein of the documentary running through its DNA too. Nolan deftly tells his story from three or four perspectives and several audaciously-dovetailing timelines and a number of key events in the drama are played out from the point-of-view of different characters as the strands of the story are slowly and beautifully woven together. The film kicks off with a group of British soldiers wandering through the deserted streets of a French seaside town; most of them are almost immediately cut down by German firepower (Nolan never lets us see the German presence throughout the entire film) but Tommy (Whitehead) reaches the beach where, in the first of the film’s many ‘oh wow’ moments, we see the extent of the Allied troops’ dilemma; thousands and thousands of them standing patiently on the beach or on the breakwater, waiting for a rescue effort which is agonisingly slow in coming. Back in Blighty Mr Dawson (Rylance) and his son Peter and deckhand George set out to sea towards Dunkirk in Dawson’s little cruiser following Churchill’s request; almost immediately they come across a shell-shocked soldier (Murphy) whose ship has been sunk by a torpedo. They take him aboard but he’s not too pleased to discover that they’re taking him back into the war zone and demands that they head back to the UK. In the air high above the English Channel a trio of RAF Spitfires are engaging Luftwaffe bombers in combat but they have their own problems as their fuel supply is dwindling and the Luftwaffe clearly won’t take ‘not on our watch’ as an answer. Back at Dunkirk pier-master Commander Bolton (Branagh) is trying to keep spirits high even as all hope seems increasingly lost.
There is so much to admire in Dunkirk that it’s genuinely hard to know where to start and who or what to single out for praise. It’s a brittle, matter-of-fact film, driven by action and jeopardy and underlaid by a powerful, edgy, haunting score by Hans Zimmer which almost becomes a character in the film in its own right, ramping up the tension from the very first frame. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, terse and intermittent – there’s little room, desire or even need for Thespian showiness - and we don’t get the chance to find out much about the characters because that’s not the point of the film; what drives the narrative is its core imperative to save the lives of these brave soldiers and the efforts of small groups to keep their heads above water (often quite literally) as they find safety and sanctuary only to have it cruelly wrested away from them by the dogged remorselessness of the circling German bombers. None of the cast are being encouraged to give it all for the Academy here and yet newcomers like Whitehead and One Direction’s Harry Styles acquit themselves admirably against the likes of Branagh, Rylance, Murphy and Tom Hardy who spends most of his time in the film unrecognisable under fighter-pilot gear and whose handful of lines of dialogue are all but incomprehensible.
In the end, this is Nolan’s film – but not in the way that the Batman movies and Interstellar were his films front and centre, a cocky and perhaps over-confident director out to make and leave his mark and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the screen whilst leaving no room for humility in either his stories or the characters he populated them with or, perhaps, in himself as a modern auteur. Perhaps it’s because this is a film with its roots buried deep in the real world (albeit told through fictionalised incident and fictional characters) or perhaps it’s because it’s the film he’s wanted to make for nearly thirty years, Dunkirk sees Christopher Nolan really coming of age as a director. It’s his masterpiece at last and it’s destined to become regarded as a very important film indeed.
DUNKIRK / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN / STARRING: FIONN WHITEHEAD, MARK RYLANCE, CILLIAN MURPHY, TOM HARDY, HARRY STYLES, KENNETH BRANAGH, JAMES D’ARCY / release date: OUT NOW
Expected rating: 9 out of 10