(BBFC 12A, 1hr 46mins)
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of watching director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk on the big screen (and, let me make this point crystal clear, you absolutely have to see it on the big screen, the bigger the better). It is not thrilling. It is not enjoyable. It is, most definitely, not fun. It is, however, one of the best movies of the year: a visceral, terrifying vision of Hell; it’s harrowing and draining, emotional and triumphant; it shakes the viewer to the core; immerses you in fear and horror; physically shakes you and breaks your heart before tossing you out of the theatre where you stagger, zombie-like, in stunned awe and silence.
At the outbreak of World War 2, the UK government declared war on Germany and sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to support the French and impose an economic blockade on the aggressors. The unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht, swept down through Holland and Belgium, however, quickly defeating our allies and pushing the BEF back toward the French coast. In May 1940, four-hundred thousand allied troops were forced onto the beaches to await evacuation. British High Command put into action the hastily formulated Project Dynamo, requisitioning as many sea-worthy craft and crews as they could get their hands on to help the evacuation, from a 15-foot fishing boat to a River Mersey Ferry and a paddle steamer normally used for pleasure cruises, the 700-strong flotilla of “Little Ships” managed to rescue some three-hundred and thirty-eight thousand troops from the blood-soaked beaches.
Over eight long and, one can only imagine, utterly terrifying days and nights the men at Dunkirk waited their turn for rescue, all the while strafed by the Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka bombers of the Luftwaffe (Hitler, crucially, making the mistake of not sending his armoured divisions into battle, thereby saving countless thousands). Great acrobatic dogfights soared and exploded above the men as the Royal Air Force bravely battled to keep the evacuees and ships safe and allow them the time to escape unharmed.
Dunkirk tells its story from four perspectives: a trio of young soldiers awaiting evacuation (including Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles); naval commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh); RAF fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy); and, finally, civilian boat-owner/skipper Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his teenage son and his son’s schoolfriend (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan). These are not separate sub-plots but all part of the whole sum, just each from the view (and timeline) of the different protagonists. It’s a conceit that allows the story to flow, yet keeps the movie to a tight and manageable running time, there’s absolutely no fat allowed onto the script’s slight, yet muscular, frame. Nolan lets the action do most of the talking, there is little rhetoric or exposition and while the characters are given little in the way of backstory, you feel for every one of them and rejoice in their triumphs, swell at their courage, cry for their losses.
Time is one of Christopher Nolan’s signature themes (look to Memento, Inception, Interstellar and even his Batman trilogy, when taken as a whole, for further proof), and with Dunkirk he has once again created a complex yet intuitive structure that, with most directors may seem like a gimmick, moves the story forward without ever seeming complicated or disjointed. The soldiers’ story covers the full week; Farrier’s a single hour and Mr. Dawson’s a single day. It’s a triumph of story-telling which I would struggle to explain, just rest assured that it works. It works really well.
From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is nothing short of miraculous. Filmed on 70mm Imax film cameras and using minimal CGI some of the shots on display should be genuinely impossible. Here’s the science bit: a 70mm Imax camera weighs roughly 240lbs as opposed to a 35mm camera which weighs about 40lbs or a digital camera even less (Tangerine, the 2015 indie movie was shot on iPhones, but that’s another story); the size of the film (70mm obvs.) means the camera can only hold about three minutes of film and takes about 20 minutes to reload; it requires special supports and rigging to move it around; on the plus side, and the reason Nolan prefers to use it, you get 12,000 lines of horizontal definition as opposed to the 4,000 of a regular high definition camera. So, because most of the effects are practical, strapping one of these cameras to the side of a Spitfire, filming the inside of a sinking ship and, let’s not forget, filming on a beach mean that this movie really shouldn’t exist and yet it does and we should all be thankful to the geniuses who got it made.
There’s great performances all round and, although I was dreading the slings and arrows from 1 Directioners, I breathe easy saying that, although not a revelation, Harry Styles is pretty good (I stress though, this is not a film I would recommend the youngest of 1D-ers go see, it may prove far too intense for the under-twelves). Mark Rylance shines (again), Tom Hardy is a stoically British hero and Fionn Whitehead has firmly placed his foot on the first step to stardom.
Minor niggles? As good as Hans Zimmer’s score is there’s maybe a little too much of it. The sound mixing (very loud, very intense, the scream of the Stuka’s left me overwhelmed and shaking, the deep growl of the Spitfire’s Merlin engines reverberated through my entire body though, strangely, proud) works so well that, at many times, the musical soundtrack is redundant.
In Nolan’s hands, “The Miracle of Dunkirk” has become the miracle of Dunkirk. This is movie making taken to the next level: the craftsmanship, expertise, genius on display is nothing short of breath taking. While Dunkirk is most definitely not a rollicking good night out it is something that you have to experience.
In a cinema.
Not on a phone.
As a personal postscript I’d just like to mention that my grandfather, Charles King, was one of those young guys waiting patiently on that beach back in 1940, but he never spoke of it. Watching Dunkirk, I can totally understand why, and why, twenty-something years since he passed away, I love him even more and I’m so grateful for the time we got to spend together.