There are still five months of this year remaining, but I’d be astonished to see a more impressive or accomplished film in 2017 than Christopher Nolan’s classic war picture Dunkirk. It will undoubtedly win Oscars, attract large audiences – and burn itself into the memories of those who watch it for years to come.
World War II War movies, of course, are thinner on the ground than they used to be, but to put Dunkirk in perspective, it can deservedly be bracketed alongside Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It is tense, nerve-shredding and gut-wrenching.
And given that this is a Hollywood film, it also feels unmistakably British – there’s none of that breast-beating swagger or macho posturing, routine in portrayals of American GIs in movies. Instead these British troops, some still in their teens and many of whose names we never learn, share a quiet, steely determination. The heroism evoked on screen is largely communal, rarely individual.
Nolan is himself English, and with his previous stellar record of hit films for Warner Bros. (Inception, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins) has earned the right to portray a war film exactly as he wants it. This circumstance makes Dunkirk a unique experience.
It needs to be, of course. Dunkirk, which involved the evacuation of more than 300,000 British troops from its beaches, was a setback in the Allied war effort. Yet the evacuation was achieved against seemingly impossible odds, and required 850 vessels, including small civilian boats, to bring the men home. Many acts of valour and unselfishness were required; this historic episode underlines that heroism need not be wedded to military triumph.
Nolan, who also wrote the script, has divided the story of the evacuation into three parts: land, sea and air. He cuts back and forth between them abruptly, so you’re constantly aware of how events are unfolding. Yet the three time scales are different. The ordeal of the troops on the beach, waiting to be evacuated, lasts for a week. The story of ordinary, middle-aged, patriotic Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and other civilian sailors setting sail from England for Dunkirk, lasts one long day. As for two British airmen (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) piloting Spitfires and picking off German Messerschmitts in heart-stopping air battles, their narrative spans just one hour. Yet Nolan keeps the plates for all three strands spinning simultaneously – a risky strategy, but one that works, and keeps the audience constantly on edge.
Kenneth Branagh, who plays the calm, suave senior naval officer overseeing the evacuation on the beach with total assurance, feels like the one throwback in Nolan’s film; in an earlier age, his role might have been played by John Mills or Kenneth More.
Several aspects of Dunkirk set it apart from most war movies. For one thing, there’s an almost complete absence of women characters throughout. The beaches are a battlefield, under attack from all sides, and they’re effectively a male preserve. Secondly, we almost never see enemy personnel, only their attacking ships and aircraft. Clearly, this was a deliberate decision on Nolan’s part: his film is about our troops, not theirs.
And finally, the British troops seem extraordinarily young – from our first glimpse of the symbolically named Tommy (Ffion Whitehead), racing under enemy fire through the streets of Dunkirk to reach the beach, where tens of thousands of troops anxiously await their fate, we realise that many of our foot soldiers at Dunkirk were teenagers or barely in their 20s. Nolan deliberately cast young actors to underline the point, and it pays off; these young men are innocents under fire and in mortal danger.
It’s a big, immersive experience, so the larger the screen the better.
Visually, Dunkirk is astonishing. I was lucky enough to see a preview of it on the huge screen at London’s BFI IMAX, which unquestionably enhances it. It’s a big, immersive experience, so the larger the screen the better. It’s also worth noting that Hans Zimmer’s outstanding score – jagged, edgy, nerve-jangling – perfectly complements the film’s sound design, which never once compromises in its loudness. Nolan wants to place the audience in the middle of this hellish, deadly place, best evoked by an assault on all our senses.
There is a wonderful moment towards the end of Dunkirk, showing a young British soldier on a train back in England reading a newspaper about the evacuation that had taken place the previous day. He reads out loud Churchill’s legendary speech that includes the passage “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall never surrender.” Putting Churchill’s words into the mouth of this young soldier emphasises what a communal effort the evacuation had been.
You may emerge reeling from Dunkirk, as I did – but there’s a good chance you’ll also be convinced it’s a masterpiece.
Read our interview with Mark Rylance in which he talks about working on Dunkirk with Christopher Nolan