'Dunkirk' Review: Intensely Dramatic and Moving, It's Already an Oscar Frontrunner
It is made in hyper-realistic fashion and with such intensity that it leaves most other recent Second World War movies looking very insipid by comparison

The Independent, 19 July 2017
By Geoffrey Macnab

“All we did was survive,” one traumatised British soldier mumbles toward the end of Christopher Nolan’s superb new film. He’s bashful and ashamed at being treated back at home like a hero after a defeat. “Survival is enough,” he’s reassured.

Nolan, who wrote and produced as well as directed Dunkirk, has made an intensely dramatic and moving film about what Winston Churchill called “a colossal military disaster.” He has managed to combine the epic and the intimate. We are a long way from next year’s Oscars but Dunkirk must surely already be a frontrunner.

This is a juddering, nerve-fraying movie to sit through. Nolan doesn’t skimp from showing the blind terror and helplessness of the 400,000 British soldiers stranded on the beach in the summer of 1940, seemingly abandoned, as German planes bomb them, picking them off like “fish in a barrel.”

The sound editing (a cacophonous symphony of explosions and gunfire) and Hans Zimmer’s pounding, disorienting electronic soundtrack induce a sense of extreme anxiety. However, the film also has moments of surprising grace and lyricism, not least when we see Spitfires powered by their Rolls Royce Merlin engines soaring through the air or when the flotilla of tiny boats finally reaches the stricken soldiers.

The filmmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to portray the Dunkirk evacuation in as realistic a fashion as possible. At the same time, the film has a mythic dimension. Amid the suffering and squalor, it showcases the quiet heroism of pilots, sailors, soldiers and civilians alike.

There’s a very British restraint and understatement about many of the characters, Even in the face of terror and bereavement, they try keep their emotions in check. It’s typical of Nolan’s approach that Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech isn’t heard directly. (Instead, a solider reads it from a newspaper.)

Older figures like naval Commander Bolt (Kenneth Branagh) or amateur sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) make it a point of principle not to betray any sign of grief, frustration or fear. The younger figures are less phlegmatic. Desperate to survive, they show selfishness and cowardice as well as courage.

This is an ensemble piece with a huge cast. Nolan edits in quickfire fashion, intercutting constantly between the stories of the soldiers, the RAF pilots and of Mr Dawson on his boat chugging toward Dunkirk. We have different perspectives (from land, air and sea) and different time frames.

One Direction’s Harry Styles was an unlikely piece of casting (we’re a long way from the world of boy bands) but makes a creditable debut as a young private who will go to extreme lengths to stay alive. Tom Hardy has one of the most prominent roles as an RAF pilot in a dogfight against the Luftwaffe but we see even less of his face here than when he played the masked and disfigured arch villain Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

Branagh and Rylance rekindle memories of actors like John Mills and Bernard Miles in old British war movies. Their stoicism is contrasted with the neurotic energy of the younger actors, notably Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, the British army private desperately looking for a way off the beach. Then, there is the haunted, shell-shocked officer, played by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy, forced to head back in the direction of the carnage he has just managed to escape.

Much of the imagery has a surrealistic quality. As the film opens, a few British soldiers are alone on the empty streets of Dunkirk as Nazi propaganda leaflets rain down on them like confetti, telling them they are surrounded. The only way out is by sea.

We hardly see the Germans at all, only their planes as they swoop down to bomb the soldiers. There’s a wonderfully eerie moment in which a soldier wanders out from the town (which seems all but empty) out onto the beach and suddenly sees the hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force.

Nolan throws in cut-aways to shots of abandoned tin helmets on the sand or of rifles leaned up against a wall with no sign of their owners or of hundreds of life jackets being loaded onto boats back home in British ports.

There are dead men on the beach. Some of their colleagues try to bury them beneath the sand. The tension comes from the soldiers’ wait for “deliverance” that may never come. Individual episodes play like self-contained mini dramas.

For example, Nolan homes in on the plight of an RAF pilot who crash lands at sea, whose Spitfire is sinking but who can’t get out of his cockpit or that of the soldiers who hide out in a trawler that has run aground, praying that the tide will turn and take them out to sea.

We’re so used to big budget superhero movies in which the protagonists rescue themselves and others with their own special powers. Dunkirk is refreshing precisely because of the helplessness of its protagonists.

As the intertitles at the start of the film explain, they’re hoping for a miracle. No individual can save them. The only real chance lies in what later came to be known as the “Dunkirk spirit,” namely a bloody-minded determination to stick together and not to give up.

Compared to some of Nolan’s earlier features like 'Inception' or 'Interstellar', 'Dunkirk' is relatively strait-laced. There are no dreams within dreams or time-travelling voyages through space here. Plot-wise, it is very predictable.

What the film demonstrates, though, is the director’s Stanley Kubrick-like drive and perfectionism. It is made in hyper-realistic fashion and with such intensity that it leaves most other recent Second World War movies looking very insipid by comparison.

Dunkirk hits UK cinemas 21 July.

Back to Dunkirk page | Back to Articles Listing | Back to the Compendium