This 2017 war film is written, co-produced and directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.
A drastic change in tone, pace and style for director Christopher Nolan. No 2hr+ long, mind-bending, fantastical, sci-fi superhero adventure here. Instead it’s a 1hr 36min nerve shredding journey to World War II-era Dunkirk for the famous evacuation of Allied troops against the odds. It’s the bravest film he’s done, and in my opinion his finest all for it. Don’t worry Batman, you come second only to this.
However, you could pin-point it’s a Nolan film from the non-linear narrative and few returning actors he favours. Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Sir Michael Caine (in a cameo RAF radio operator role) grace the screens but none of them take the role as “leading man”. This is due to the wealth of acting talent spanning many generations telling three very different stories that converge together during the evacuation. It’s not a hard plot to follow – 3 stories set on land, sea and air in 3 different times that finally come together at the end.
Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles (not as annoying as you may think) and Kenneth Branagh lead the land story as they show what the troops were facing on Dunkirk beach. The enemy attacks out of sky in the guise of ear-piercing German Stuka dive bombers, from the sea in hidden U-boats and on land by skilled soldiers. It’s a desperate situation, and Nolan doesn’t let you relax at any point. Will they get shot? Will they drown? Will they get blown up? Will the boat sink? Is there a traitor among them? When is the next attack coming? It’s gripping, harrowing and very real in execution – you feel every explosion and suffer the agonising wait as a ship sinks around you, battling to break the surface. You don’t need blood and gore to create a harrowing fight for survival when the situation is this tense, and Whitehead and Styles are the everyday soldier; youths desperately wanting to go home.
Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan tell the sea story via the choices and morals English civilians faced on the journey across the English Channel to help the evacuation. Cillian Murphy throws a spanner in the works as a traumatised soldier plucked from the sea determined not to return to Dunkirk. For such a simple setting, so much drama and resolve is displayed and also great emotional moments as a father, son and young friend are caught up in a very real war and see the effects of it first-hand. Again, Nolan maintains a different sort of tension in will they get attacked by U-boats? Will the bombers launch an attack? Will Murphy’s solider prove to be a liability? Should they help everyone they come across and sacrifice their mission?
Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden (and Sir Michael Caine) lead the air story as our British RAF pilots crossing the Channel to aid the evacuation, but face the German air-force in fighters planes and bombers. For me, the stand out story of them all thanks to the most gripping narrative, fantastically shot and edited dog-fights using real planes from the start. Our leads are mostly hidden behind pilot masks and sat in a cockpit, but Hardy especially has the talent of acting with his voice and his facial expressions, saying more with fewer tools than he could outside of a plane in this most desperate hour. And again, more palm-sweating threats from Nolan are maintained such as will they run out of fuel? Will they get shot down? Will the bombers take out the evacuation ships? Who will survive the flight? How will they choose which ship to protect over another?
During all these interwoven stories, a few things are the same. Dialogue is present, but not always important. This could be a silent picture at times, and proves that you don’t need an over-stuffed script to keep audiences hooked. You aren’t given character backstories or bogged down with reflective moments – let’s be honest, thrown into a war film like this with little time to relax, you don’t care, and nor does Nolan. This isn’t about one character; it’s about all of them. They all represent the thousands of others like them, and the crux of the film is the situation they are in and how – of if – they will survive. Why waste time learning about unnecessary backstory when, in reality, there isn’t time to waste at all The actors, in general, are perfect. They don't need much material other than "fight and survive" to give engrossing performances.
Hans Zimmer gives us a typical Zimmer soundtrack that harkens back to ‘The Dark Knight’, but is filled with many more haunting, one-note fuelled motifs that increase in pitch and volume, the man does nothing but un-nerve you. Along with a constant “tick tick tick tick” of an edited clock with the music, this is not a soundtrack to relax and reflect on. It’s a reminder of the pressure they are under and the evident countdown until the next surprise attack.
So much is used here as storytelling tools, it signals how good a cast and crew have come together for this important recognition of a landmark moment in European, and global, history. Generations need to watch this to understand an event many don’t even know much about. The brave men and women need to be remembered and understood in what they faced. It does for the Dunkirk evacuation what ‘Saving Private Ryan’ did for D-Day, but with far less blood and gore, allowing younger audiences to view this, albeit they must be prepared for un-easy, uncomfortably tense viewing at times and ear-bleeding gun-shots and dive-bomber noise. But even I didn’t mind the loud noise as I’m sure it wasn’t comfortable for the soldiers on the beach too to experience it.
More of my praise comes from the final 10mins or so. I was so moved and touched by the editing and culmination of the three interwoven stories and how big a part each played, that with steady narration by Whitehead and a rousing version of ‘Nimrod’ by Zimmer, the fate of the characters are laid out for us and I was nothing but thoughtful and exhausted and emotionally confused.
Did I feel happy or sad? Relieved or disheartened? Worn-out or on-edge? Maybe all of them. War isn’t meant to be satisfying or simple to comprehend, so nor should my emotions when watching something like this.
I just urge everyone to see it and experience it.