Movie review by Anna Charlton
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles.
An intense score by Hans Zimmer sets the pace for the latest epic by Christopher Nolan, which combines immersive visuals and poignant storytelling. At 107 minutes, this is one of the shortest films ever made by Nolan (second only to his directorial debut, Following in 1998), but it is full of the powerful, high impact drama we have grown to expect from him as a director.
Dunkirk is set over three different time frames in May 1940. On land it follows a young British private (Fionn Whitehead) over the period of a week in his desperate attempts to survive. At sea we follow the journey of a civilian boat, The Moonstone, over the course of a day as it joins the rescue mission. Finally, the story of three Spitfire pilots plays out over an hour. Towards the end the three narratives become intertwined in an intense and moving scene, but for the most part their stories are separate, reflecting the impact and vastness of a war that seems to transcend time and space.
The enemy remains faceless and mostly unnamed throughout. In the opening credits there isn’t even a mention of Nazi Germany. This makes for a refreshing change to typical war narratives; there are no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ here, no highly-concentrated heroism or overt victim plotline. The dialogue about the war is localised to this moment in time, no overarching war strategy or politics unfold. This is simply the story of the soldiers and their rescue, but it’s more than enough.
If history hadn’t taught us that Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk did in fact rescue over 300,000 of the stranded 400,000 Allied soldiers, the relentless disasters we constantly witness on screen could leave you thinking the mission was unsuccessful.
There is something poignant in this; the Dunkirk rescue mission was a success, but this portrayal does not simplify it, nor particularly rejoice in it. In fact, Dunkirk speaks to the tragedy of war – to lives lost, to the unbounded determination for survival, to the chaos of battle, and to the unfair part that luck and chance plays in achieving that survival.
Whilst heroism is not the focus, Dunkirk does have its heroes. Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh’s characters bring the dignity and strength of men doing their jobs to the highest possible degree. Tom Hardy’s character is hidden behind his air force mask for the most part of the film and when he finally emerges from his plane in one of the most poignant moments in the film, we are really struck by his bravery in the face of the precarious and isolating role he plays in the war.
Dunkirk is intense but not intensive, as so often war films can be. The minimal dialogue allows the events to speak for themselves and the characters belong to the wider narrative rather than dominate it. The high calibre actors in this film give wonderful performances, and their success lies in the fact that each character we follow speaks for the thousands of men that we don’t.
Christopher Nolan has essentially taken the movie equivalent role of ‘caretaker’ for the story of Dunkirk.
His sensitive and intelligent direction strips away any hint of ego that can often seep its way in to Hollywood war films, and instead provides audiences with the feel of a very real, vivid and frightening living museum.
Dunkirk is a piece of craftsmanship that is immersive and intimate whilst epic on scale. It so poignantly reflects the defeat, resistance, survival, determination and suffering of Dunkirk, without gratuitous violence and gore, and not a hint of glorification of war.
Follow Anna on Instagram @historicalcurator for more on the art of crafting history in film and television.