Hello readers! This week I bring you the second WW2 epic this year in the form of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which differs from Hacksaw Ridge in just about every way it can.
When I first saw the teaser for Dunkirk I was curious to see how they would portray the story given its peculiarity compared to other events during the Second World War. It was not some grand invasion, some masterstroke of underhanded cunning to liberate a French town or sabotage a Nazi project. It was the mother of all retreats – acts of heroism would be far more low-key and the action could be all but absent. That and Nolan always seems to squeeze a twist or surreal ending into his films which obviously couldn’t happen with a historically movie.
What Nolan did instead was play with time. Dunkirk is a story told in three parts: land, sea and air. Each of these stories is told simultaneously, but happening over totally different time frames. We see the troops on the beach desperately awaiting evacuation over the course of one week, follow the tale of one of the “little boats” as they set off to assist the evacuation over the course of one day and accompany a squadron of Spitfires as they defend the skies over the course of one hour. This does create some odd moments as you see the same scene from two different viewpoints but at very different parts of the movie – one of the spitfires downing in the channel may be early on in the “Air” tale but is well past the halfway point of the “Sea” perspective. However, this weirdness aside it created an interesting cinematic experience.
I have to start by praising the… well the start of the film. In my Hacksaw Ridge review I described the first battle up the cliffs and the overwhelming shock of noise and visuals as an intense, smoke-shrouded firefight takes place for just long enough to leave you shaken. Dunkirk begins with a few British soldiers wandering around an abandoned section of a French town, scrounging drink and cigarette butts, when suddenly they are under fire, desperately flee over a wall as they continue to be gunned down by sustained rifle fire before eventually the one remaining soldier makes it past friendly lines to the beach. This whole scene used minimal dialogue, the gunfire was clearly recorded from real guns and the whole time the camera is focused on the fleeing soldiers, never once showing us the enemy. The suddenness and intensity made it very difficult not to be shaken, I remember slowly gripping the arms of my seat harder – despite lacking the over the top action, explosions and bravado of Hacksaw Ridge, Nolan delivered just as powerful a scene with so little. It is a trend that continues throughout the movie – it is not until the closing scenes that you actually see a German (yes, you see German planes but you never see a pilot).
The focus of the story is definitely on the “war is hell” end of the spectrum, demonstrating just how effectively unnerving the wailing siren on a Stuka dive bomber was, the dire situation of men subjected to strafing runs on an open beach with nowhere to hide and the phobic horror of being sealed inside a torpedoed ship. Obviously it ends on higher notes (not a spoiler, its history after all) with the little boats being able to assist the mass evacuation and rescue far more soldiers than predicted.
There is further praise for showing how difficult dogfights were as even agile fighter planes do not snap to a new heading instantly and that spraying bullets at one another when both planes are travelling over 300mph is not a walk in the park. Many of the plane scenes were beautiful (Spitfires <3) and clearly many of the planes used were original or replica models rather than resorting fully to CG, but that did mean some of the more obviously CG moments were a little jarring. Also worth noting many of the little boats shown in the evacuation were the actual boats that took part in the real thing.
Due to the ensemble cast and wide character focus, it’s hard to give any actor specific praise – not that anyone delivered a poor performance, but it was just that their characters were not explored that deeply. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy portrayed the Naval and Army commanders respectively and served mostly to update the audience on the progress of the evacuation and how the defences were doing. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard did a great job as two soldiers trying to get evacuated with no dialogue between them for large stretches of the film seemingly reacting purely to each other’s body language. Tom Hardy shows off just how much emotion he can portray through his eyes alone as a Spitfire pilot and Mark Rylance, as a mariner, and Cillian Murphy as a shellshocked soldier have the most emotional dialogue between them.
My main complaints are with the history itself. While the film works fine as a film and is a great watch and a very different approach to a big budget war film, but I feel it could have done more. Dunkirk really misses out on the scale of well… Dunkirk. In the establishing shots and flybys you see maybe a few thousand soldiers on the beach – enough to fill a lower league football stadium – when in reality there were around 350,000 men on that beach and the sheer scale of that was not approached by the film. They mention the numbers but you never feel that the film is close to presenting the sheer scale of men that were waiting. Much the same with the little boats, you never see them en masse as you do in any picture or footage of the real event. There is also very little focus on what many would call the true heroes of Dunkirk; the contingent of French and Belgian armies and the British Expeditionary force that held the line around Dunkirk to allow the evacuation to take place. Also a minor issue of mine is that despite the historical nature of the story and how well documented the evacuation was, the tales told by the film is entirely fictitious. It is only loosely based on the true event with the characters being all made up and the events of the film are not dramatisations of soldier’s memoirs… it’s all just someone’s creative imagination of the Dunkirk Evacuation and I think I’d have preferred a true dramatisation.
All that aside, I truly recommend Dunkirk as a fantastic and moving piece of cinema and a display of what Nolan is really good at with less of his usual pretentious bollocks on top. It’s nice to leave a Nolan film and not hear people saying “well maybe you just didn’t understand it”.