Starring Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Aneurin Barnard and Barry Keoghan.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.
Does anyone else agree that we throw the words “miracle” and “hero” into the mix far too often these days? The words are used so freely, often to describe something as trivial as a sporting event or merely completing a dare set by a mate. I fear we become desensitised and the words risk losing meaning.
My feeling is they should be saved for discussions surrounding Dunkirk.
The story itself is an exceptional yet thoughtful tale of a signal drama of the Second World War: the 1940 water evacuation of nearly 340,000 endangered Allied soldiers from the Nazi-encircled beaches of Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan once again oozes charisma and class, but handles this story so delicately and respectfully. It’s very much the less is more approach – minimal dialogue, no real lead character and eery silences throughout the film. For me, it didn’t need anything more – the story quite simply tells itself. I didn’t need a lead protagonist or a love narrative, nor did I need mass amount of conversation. Silence was by far the most powerful tool in this film. The fear and inner torment of these young men echoed loud and clear through the silence – a beautiful juxtaposition.
The silence made the ‘jumps’ all the more satisfying. I feel the silence represented confusion, but also as a tool to accentuate the bombs. Nolan hasn’t held back – the explosions and the sound of planes is truly deafening. Yes, for film making purposes its very exciting and gripping but for Dunkirk, this is what it must have actually felt like! Standing on that beach or the makeshift docks experiencing those sporadic screams from the engines. Did Nolan want to put us right there in the centre of it? Yes, most definitely.
I’ve read a few reviews for this movie and many were underwhelmed and disappointed by the lack of narrative or direction. The timeline creeps back and fourth and some found it somewhat disconcerting, while the silence proved for some difficult viewing. Not for me! My belief is this is exactly how Nolan wanted the audience to feel – emotional, uneasy and uncomfortable. This was war, and this really happened – it didn’t need artificial drama. Every resolution met by obstacles was real. For example, the shallow waters of Dunkirk’s harbour prevented many ships from docking, forcing troops to queue on long narrow jetties to access them. It left me questioning, are they ever going to get off that beach? There’s your narrative.
The use of lighting and camera movements I feel really added to the intensity of war. Everything was so blue and dark, the men looked genuinely freezing. It felt truly wretched to be cold, wet, scared and disorientated on that beach. The overhead shots to capture the sheer numbers were astonishing, and very smart. It created your own narrative. I didn’t need a character to ask ‘how are we going to rescue all of these men?’ or ‘we are in danger here’. The camera said it for me. Likewise, how can I not mention the water? The poor souls trapped in yet another blown up vessel was hard to watch. The combined use of dark lighting and frantic camera work proved for very hard viewing as it put me right there with them. I felt myself gasping for breath, desperately wanting them to find a way out before it was too late. I think Nolan’s message here is unequivocal – pain, fear, bravery and survival.
Dunkirk splits the narrative between land, sea and air, with three characters representing each: newcomer Fionn Whitehead is Tommy, a British army soldier desperately seeking to escape encroaching carnage or capture; Mark Rylance is Dawson, a keen weekend sailor crossing the channel in his small wooden yacht Moonstone to rescue anybody he finds; Hardy is Farrier, an RAF pilot whose job it is to provide air cover for the flotillas of navy vessels and private “little ships” rescuing the troops. You could argue they were the ‘main leads’, but I didn’t feel as if I saw them anymore than I saw Cillian Murphy or Harry Styles.
I have to finish with Churchill. If you are a proud Brit, this film is for you. Aside from filmmaking, I think Nolan’s treat to us is pride. Harry Styles’ character was so ashamed and embarrassed, having returned and feeling as if all he had done was ‘survive’. However, he was met with cheers and applause at the station and showered with treats. Fionn Whitehead ends beautifully with Churchill’s famous speech:
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
I get goosebumps even writing it.
Five stars for me – it’s a must see.