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Netherlands/United Kingdom/France/USA 2017
Directed by
Christopher Nolan
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Dunkirk

Synopsis: In May 1940 Germany had 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and the Allies appeared to be on the brink of defeat. This is the story of how they survived.

Of course we all know of Dunkirk, one of the most iconic events of WWII (it features in the recently-released Churchil and will again in Joe Wright’s upcoming Darkest Hour) so writer-director Christopher Nolan’s challenge was clearly to give us a fresh take on the subject. He has done so outstandingly. Not with the kind of shock-and-awe action set pieces that we might expect of the director of the Dark Knight trilogy or conventional war movie heroics à la Saving Private Ryan (1998) but rather by focussing on the stories of a handful of ordinary individuals caught up in the indiscriminate madness of war.  Not that there isn’t action here, there is, and it’s brilliantly handled but the real strength of the film is Nolan’s decision to make it instrumental to the experience of his anonymous protagonists

Dunkirk is structured by three separate stories that only come together late in the film. On the beach at Dunkirk, at “the mole” a long jetty that stretches into the sea are three foot soldiers desperately trying to get on board one of the few ships that might take them to England, 25 miles away across the Channel. In the air are three R.A.F. pilots whose job it is to see off the German fighter planes that are bombing the beach and any vessels that get close to it. Meanwhile back in England the owner of a small pleasure boat, his son and a friend set off to rescue some of the troops.

The film follows these three narrative arcs, cutting from one to the other as Hans Zimmer’s formidable score almost continuously ratchets up the tension whilst Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography puts us in the centre of the action, notably with the superbly filmed dog-fights and the German bombing of Allied ships as the three soldiers find themselves escaping one life-threatening incident only to be thrown into another.

Despite some big names in the cast like Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy the former only has a small role and Hardy spends virtually the entire film in headgear in the cockpit of his Spitfire with only his eyes showing. The three soldiers  (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) are too busy trying not to be shot or drowned to have time for character development and only the thread involving the middle-aged amateur sailor (Mark Rylance), and his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) who pick up a shell-shocked lone survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a U-boat attack follows the more familiar narrative pattern (it is also the one most vulnerable to reservations).

Dunkirk isn’t flawless. Although presented as synchronous the three strands clearly could not have all taken place in the same time-frame and this is a little confusing particularly at the film’s end when Hardy lands his plane as we see Rylance back at home in England. The script uses familiar plot strategies to keep us engaged, particularly when the less far spectacular story of the pleasure boat is involved.  Some may also question the Anglocentric point of view (there are brief references to the French and Dutch and none too flattering ones at that). But Nolan’s agenda is clearly to give us a panoramic yet intimate portrait of the senselessness of war and in this difficult task he has succeeded admirably. 

Fans of Nolan's big budget action spectaculars will probably be disappointed by this relatively low-key exercise in historical recreation but for baby-boomers in particular, whose mind-sets were formed in the shadow of the events depicted, here Dunkirk will be rewarding viewing.

 

 

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