At the end of May 1940, as the Nazi war machine pushed into France, the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied armies proved unable to resist and were left trapped on the northern coast. Gathering at the town of Dunkirk, they waited to be evacuated – but with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, the Luftwaffe in the air, and land-based forces rapidly closing in, rescuing any more than a few thousand seemed foolishly optimistic. Yet through the efforts of the Royal Navy and a flotilla of civilian vessels, with the RAF and French First Army providing defence, over 338,000 men were brought across the Channel to the safety of Britain. Now the events have been brought to the big screen by no less a director than Christopher Nolan, and he’s in his usual form.
The film goes back and forth between three separate locations. First there is the mole on the beach at Dunkirk, where three privates (Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead) struggle to find a place in the boats going home. Second is the sea, where a civilian mariner (Mark Rylance), accompanied by his son and a friend, takes his boat out to assist in the evacuation. Third is the air, where a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) tries to defend British vessels against the relentless attacks of the Luftwaffe.
Christopher Nolan is known for making intelligent films, and he avoids making Dunkirk just another generic war film by having the three focus points be non-linear: the events at the mole take place over one week, the sea in one day, and the air in one hour. (Spitfires only carried enough fuel for a maximum of two hours’ flight, which is not the least of our pilot’s problems.) People or vessels may be introduced in one timeline, then reappear within another in either the past or future. I was concerned that this could become just as messy and uninspiring as Julian Fellowes’ Titanic, but Nolan is better than that. The structure never gets confusing, and the different timelines link together smoothly; even when certain events are repeated, it’s made interesting to see them from another perspective.
Dunkirk is not as much of a history lesson as other films in the genre. It doesn’t go out of its way to provide its audience with all the details – even the opening explanatory text is kept simple and expects you to already know who the two sides are. The film throws you right into the action: after seeing some soldiers fleeing through the deserted streets of the town, we head straight to the beach where the Allied soldiers are already queuing and waiting for their turn to leave. Little time is spent on developing the characters, and any narratives they are given are basic. Even dialogue is kept to a minimum. What the film ultimately does is try to bring the Dunkirk evacuation to life and simply show it to you, through the eyes of a few central figures. And it works, because what we’re seeing is so compelling.
The film is incredibly intense; nobody that we’re watching looks safe at any moment, whether they’re ducking for cover from bombers, or fighting to escape a ship that’s been torpedoed. It may not be as bloody as the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, but it doesn’t have to be. You really feel the pressure as the Nazis close in and one vessel after another is destroyed. The cinematography of the Spitfire scenes is especially good, with awesome practical effects and authentic aerial shots. As with other Nolan films, the ever faithful Hans Zimmer is there to provide steady background music that successfully builds up the tension whenever necessary. Most people who see Dunkirk will know how it all turned out, but even with that knowledge, watching so much adversity unfold on the screen, you’ll be wondering how anybody managed to escape at all. The situation looks practically hopeless – and so when hope eventually does appear on the horizon, it’s a welcome sight.
Thrilling, fresh and masterfully directed, Dunkirk can be added to 2017’s small pile of really fantastic films. Rating: 4.5/5.