I thought I had read and seen everything there was about the Dunkirk evacuations. But I had never really seen the faces of the thousands of young men, desperate to get home, bravely facing off the Luftwaffe. I had never seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
There are only about thirty seconds of peace and quiet in the film – the opening sequence – before you are plunged in to the heart of one of the most famous events in modern warfare. Nolan’s film allows you to almost smell the musty uniforms, feel the sea spray on your face, hear the bombs soar above your head. It’s a phenomenal visual and cinematic achievement.
For starters, there is hardly any CGI and very limited speech. Everything is relayed through the incredible sound and the facial expressions of the ensemble cast. This isn’t a “Harry Styles vehicle” or “the Tom Hardy show”, it’s very much about a group of men; their experiences and their spirit. Just as it was at Dunkirk itself.
I barely made it twenty minutes in to the film without blubbering (as silently as I could, for pretty much the entire duration). I have seen millions of war films. I have never seen anything like this.
The film is split in to three time frames: A week on ‘The Mole’, an hour in the sky and a day at sea, continuing Nolan’s love of playing around with time without turning a serious event in to a spectacle. The stories intertwine to tell one of the most audacious evacuation plans ever attempted.
The sound is staggering. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack – which beautifully borrows from Elgar – weaves its way seamlessly around the crashing ways, the whistling crescendo of bombs dropping and the animalistic cries for help. You feel like you are in the middle of a war zone, and that is no mean feat. Similar to Hacksaw Ridge, this is very much a film that will leave you emotionally exhausted – not least because the ticking sound that permeates the soundtrack reminds you of the pressing need to get hundreds of thousands of young men off the beach.
The performances throughout are stunning. So much of the film is conveyed through the gaze: Kenneth Branagh’s eyes filling with tears as he spots the holiday yachts on the horizon; Mark Rylance’s desperation to save as many men as he can; Aneurin Barnard’s trauma of what he has experienced. This was a time when men, in particular, didn’t used words like “depressed” or “traumatised” – you were simply “shell shocked” and ought to keep a stiff upper lip about it.
Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy also put in excellent performances, as does (surprisingly) Harry Styles. Despite the large cast, you spend enough time with each group to understand a bit of their back story and their sheer determination to make it back home.
“Dunkirk spirit” has become synonymous with the British stiff upper lip and “can do” attitude. It evokes the rosy glow of times past. Nolan’s film shows the reality behind that – men screaming, drowning, dying. Seeing young men, shivering and slicked with oil, their wide eyes peering out, huddled together and feeling ashamed at retreating is an image that really stands out.
What Nolan has done with Dunkirk, is that is he has achieved a cinematic experience. It’s not a popcorn blockbuster and it’s not a typical war film. There are no flashbacks to a romance back home or exaggerated tales of heroics. It’s about sheer desperation and – as many have put it – being able to snatch a small victory from the jaws of defeat. The very small amounts of script give way to powerful performances, fully bolstered by the soundtrack.
Without doubt, this is one of the most impactful films I have seen this year, and one of Nolan’s finest. It truly is a stunning visual and aural triumph that does not look back through rose tinted glasses. Dunkirk is a fitting tribute to those who endeavoured to sail across the Channel and those who didn’t make it home.