A powerful document of Britain's greatest military defeat, told in stark terms by 'Dark Knight' director Christopher Nolan
You might already know how the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 turned out: how over 300,000 mainly British troops escaped from the beach and harbour of a northern French port while being bombarded by the Nazis. But the power of Christopher Nolan’sharrowing, unusual war film is that it tries hard, with real success, not to make any of this feel like just another war movie. Instead there’s a strong sense of this bloody, strange event unfolding in the unknowable way that those on the ground might have experienced it. It’s awe-inspiring and alienating, perhaps as it should be.
At less than two hours (brief for the director of ‘The Dark Knight’ films and ‘Interstellar’) and keeping dialogue to a bare minimum, ‘Dunkirk’ gives us a short, sharp dose of the oddness and horror of war, dropping us right into the fray. It’s a staggering feat of immersive terror, blessed with such knockout photography that it has to be seen on a massive screen if at all possible (Nolan shot the film in two large formats, Imax and 65mm). It looks, feels and sounds like a nightmare, balancing naked suffering (drowning, shooting, shelling, crashing, burning) with a strong hint of otherworldliness: Nazi propaganda leaflets spookily dropping from the sky; strange foam washing up on the sand, dislocating aerial shots of sea meeting land.
Nolan gives us three interlocking chapters, offering three different perspectives. There’s ‘The Mole, One Week’, taking place on the harbour wall from which thousands were rescued and where we see a commander (Kenneth Branagh) trying to make sense of the disaster. There’s ‘The Sea, One Day’, where we see civilian sailor Mark Rylance set off from the English south coast. And there’s ‘The Air, One Hour’, in which RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) engages in dogfights with the Luftwaffe. There are other characters – young troops on the beach played Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles; a disturbed soldier (Cillian Murphy) rescued from the hull of a sinking warship. Yet as much as these familiar faces give us something to grab onto, this is a war film without heroes or a straightforward story. The event is the story. If that means some of the film feels chilly, a little distant, it’s at the expense of easy sympathy and simplistic drama.
Churchill called Dunkirk a ‘miracle’. The newspapers tagged it a ‘triumph’. Nolan resists any punch-the-air celebration. Hans Zimmer’s score scrapes away at you throughout, piling unease on unease before flirting with Elgar’s war remembrance anthem ‘Nimrod’ and backing off, as if embarrassed. Questions are posed about the government: a survivor asks an RAF pilot back home, ‘Where the hell were you?’. The older generation owes a debt to the young: ‘That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye,’ observes one soldier. We hear Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech, but the words come from the mouth of a dazed soldier, not the PM. There’s no glory here, just survival. It’s a sombre tribute that makes a distant war feel uncomfortably present.
Cast and crew
Average User Rating
4.1 / 5
- 5 star:11
- 4 star:15
- 3 star:4
- 2 star:0
- 1 star:1
Visually and aurally stunning - the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is almost overwhelming and disorientating at times. A visceral experience at the cinema - although I wonder what an American audience will make of it all...
I'm not usually a fan of war movies, but I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan so this was a must see for me.
The movie did a great job of bringing the war to life, but didn't rely on graphic images of gore to build tension. While it can be easy to see soldiers as just a faceless mass, through storytelling, Nolan makes the audience see the soldiers as individuals rather than a number.
If you're in the mood for two hours of high tension and a little history lesson, do yourself a favor and see Dunkirk in theaters.
“Flash, bang, wallop, what a picture”. I couldn’t resist lifting this phrase from the stage musical "Half a Sixpence", and changing the context completely.
It pretty well describes this cinemagoer’s experience at the BFI IMAX. Having been entreated by all the critics not to miss the film in 70mm form I made my maiden trip to the Waterloo venue. That’s the building that looks like a giant circular biscuit barrel from the outside.
I certainly didn’t regret coughing up £15.50 (Old Git’s price) for a seat to see the enormous crystal-clear screen and to hear the overpowering sound-track which at times must have rivalled the decibels generated at Operation Dynamo, as it was called, itself.
But to be fair to writer and director Christopher Nolan’s splendid new film, there were also moments of extreme pathos and subtlety which can unexpectedly occur in the heat of battle.
Mr Nolan constructed the film in three sections - land, sea and air - all running concurrently and managed to recruit some stellar names like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy to grace his work.
There are so many talking points surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation that to enter discussion here would only put off any potential readers of this little review.
The story is so well covered now - the enormous bravery of all the participants, especially the small merchant boats which rallied to the cause, the disputed role of the RAF and more but the fact that 338,000 troops were repatriated compared to the very small number estimated at the start must have been a big turning point in World War II.
I emerged shakily into the south London daylight suffering severe battle fatigue but mightily impressed by a movie which can only be called a classic.
One could cast doubts on Nolan’s epic by wondering whether it would have looked and sounded as good in a less impressive digital format. Probably not…but don’t risk disappointment and watch it in IMAX format if you can.
Pointless, painfully loud war porn. Save your $ and your hearing. War is hell. Golly gee. Boycott BS.