Very occasionally, history offers epochal anecdotes so cinematic in their telling that it is hard not to imagine the real event as having been written and produced by Hollywood itself. The May to June evacuation of the British Army from the beaches at Dunkirk in the second year of the Second World War is exactly one such moment. Indeed, an unlikely tale of heroism in which underdogs overcome all odds to seize victory from the grasps of defeat, the story of Dunkirk has gifted, in many ways, a exemplary template for decades of cinematic offerings.
It’s fitting, then, that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk may well be this decade’s peak in the creation of a cinematic experience. Whilst not faultless as a film, Dunkirk on the big screen (where it must be seen) is breathless, absorbing and utterly mesmeric. Stripping down to the base elements of cinema – sight and sound – Nolan substitutes script for spectacle for an tightly paced 106 minutes of relentless action. Later home viewings can never live up to this.
Nolan’s Dunkirk is not the first time the operation has been realised in film, of course – that would be Leslie Norman’s ambitious but flawed 1958 feature – but it will certainly prove the definitive. Though returning to historical drama for the first time since The Prestige, Dunkirk sees its director retain a degree of Nolan’s tables in tricksy and moralistic storytelling. The film is divided threefold into a land, sea and air triptych. Each part of this triumvirate, though cleverly overlapping, exists within its own timescale. On land, the action takes place across the week leading up to the evacuation. The sea plots the full day itself, whilst in the air Tom Hardy plays an RAF pilot in a single hour of attack. It’s a brave structure but one well balanced and neatly on the right side of comprehensible.
A relative newcomer, Fionn Whitehead is the closest thing Dunkirk has to a principal. You’ll be hard pressed to remember his (or any of the characters) name come the end of the film but that’s hardly the point and never detracts from a strong and focused performance. Whitehead flits between the characterisation of the man made in the army and the boy lost in the war. Pointedly named Tommy – Great War slang for the common British soldier – Whitehead is the everyman and representative of the 300,000 saved at Dunkirk.
Other leads in the ensemble, resemblant of the sprawlingly starry cast of The Longest Day, are similarly well drawn stand-ins for the bigger picture. Mark Rylance is typically excellent as Mr Dawson, one of the many mariners to take up the call of the Navy to sail his little ship to Dunkirk in aid of the rescue. Likewise, in the air, Hardy and Jack Lowdan’s fellow airman, Collins, take to their quick sketches with a strong efficiency.
Fairing less well might be Kenneth Branagh, whose composite Commander, based on numerous real figures, can’t help but feel oddly out of place in an otherwise quite scrappy film. Branagh, a terrific actor and director, is left to saunter up and down his pier delivering somber and weighty dialogue that wouldn’t put him out of place in Titanic. It feels a picky critique to prod at the dialogue but this is Dunkirk’s sole drawback from unqualified triumph. So little is actually said by characters in the film that the scripted lines included have rather too much heavy lifting to carry for audiences unfamiliar with the history. ‘You can almost see it,’ says Branagh, ‘home’.
Though packed with hints of all from Schindler’s List to The Great Escape, and The Longest Day to The Dam Busters, it’s a credit to the film, however, to note just how unique Dunkirk feels amid the ever-growing field of Second World War cinema. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, this is a largely bloodless affair but equally one with far less by way of sentimentality. Nolan’s perspective is as British as the tea with jam and bread served to evacuated soldiers yet this is a far, far grimmer affair than this year’s earlier Their Finest.
Best of all in Dunkirk is the soundtrack – both that scored by a fabulously on form Hans Zimmer and that constructed by all behind the scenes in foley and effects. In those moments in which Zimmer’s crescendoing and constantly ticking strings and percussion do not have you gripped to the edge of their seats, roars of explosions and blisteringly loud ricochets of gunfire may well launch you out of them.
Made for IMAX and crafted as experience cinema, by all accounts Dunkirk should really be seen on the biggest of screens with the most powerful of speakers. It’s simply that this is the most effective way to truly live the film, not that smaller-screen viewings will leave you wanting. Nolan’s huge spectacle is really a panoptic prism of microcosmic moments. It’s remarkable.