Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the epic story of the 1940 evacuation of British troops trapped by Nazi forces Northern France.
“We will fight them on the beaches” is a phrase that has passed into British folklore.
It is from a speech Winston Churchill made in June 1940 after Britain’s army had been forced to do quite the opposite when trapped by Nazi Germany’s forces in the French coastal town of Dunkirk.
This is the context in which Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk begins.
Young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is desperately retreating with his comrades through the streets of Dunkirk in an attempt to get to the beach for a chance of evacuation.
The few ships that the Royal Navy can spare are being bombed by the Luftwaffe, and a full evacuation of the 400,000 British and French soldiers caught on the wrong side of the English Channel seems a remote prospect.
On the beach, Tommy and fellow soldiers Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles) join thousands desperate to get any ship they can out of the death and destruction of Dunkirk.
The efforts of Naval officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) to organise even a small-scale evacuation are hindered by the German bombers and U-Boats, which stalk any ship trying to return to England.
The Royal Air Force, represented in the film by pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), who are hampered by the need to keep planes in reserve for an expected Nazi invasion, struggle to provide meagre air cover.
Across the Channel, amateur sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) are determined to answer a call for civilian boats to help with the evacuation and begin to sail across the Channel. On their way, they pick up a shell-shocked officer (Cillian Murphy) whose own ship has been sunk by a German U-Boat.
Nolan cuts quickly between each scene, with a relentless score from long-term musical collaborator Hans Zimmer providing a shared sense of foreboding that links them together.
In Dunkirk, the director achieves a remarkable feat; as an audience you can feel the scale of the battle and events.
In each scene you can feel not just the action taking place on screen, but the importance of what’s taking place just over the horizon. We barely see a single German, but do not need to.
What astounds though is the attention to detail.
War films have not been particularly served well with technological advances in cinema, as even the most advanced computer wizardry struggles to capture the feel of battle. Not the blood, but the real sweat and tears.
Nolan’s eye though is on the soldier’s ill-fitting uniforms and the heaviness of the sand under their feet as they scramble to survive.
Even during dogfights in the air, we are never far away from a close-up of Hardy or Lowden grimacing beneath a weathered oxygen mask.
The film’s stellar cast inevitably don’t let anyone down, with young Whitehead and Rylance the standouts.
Even Styles, the One Direction pop star taking on his first acting role, convinces as the most cocksure and impulsive of the young soldiers.
The actors are not the stars of this ensemble piece however, Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema are.
The director is best known for his mind-bending thrillers, but with Dunkirk, he shows that underneath the complex plot twists, he has always been a superb cinematic craftsman.
Churchill’s famous speech is remembered as one of history’s greatest. But its potency has perhaps done Dunkirk a disservice.
The evacuation has become a celebrated national myth, a turning point in the Second World War defined by his declaration Britain would “never surrender”.
What Nolan’s film does, in thrilling detail, is allow its audience to view some of the smaller individual acts of heroism that combined to rescue more than 300,000 men at a moment when disaster seemed a more likely outcome than victory.
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