Dunkirk is the latest big budget World War II film, that opts to join the crowded ‘war is hell’ sub-genre. Christopher Nolan writes and directs a movie that is less about the largely-silent characters and focuses on the loud, frightening world they inhabit.
In a year of great films, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the latest to garner rabid praise from the critics; a Rolling Stone review argues it ‘May Be the Greatest War Film Ever’. Many believe that this is the first serious contender for the Best Picture Award at 2018’s Oscars.
The film has all the early indications of a box office smash. Taking a surprising £10.02 million in its opening weekend in the UK, this has been second largest opening of a film in the UK for 2017. With the growing critical acclaim and word of mouth, this figure is likely to rise, potentially spurring Nolan to rise to fifth in the list of highest grossing directors of all-time.
Dunkirk takes place in 1940, with the Axis powers on the offensive, ripping their way through France and forcing the British to retreat across the Channel. 400,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian soldiers are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting for ships to rescue them. Men stand in queues across the sand. Signaller Alfred Baldwin who was there recalled queues so orderly “you had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus”.
While awaiting escape, the Allies encounter attacks from the enemy [who are brilliantly never shown on-screen] from the air and sea. Their mission is to get across the 26 mile English Channel and reach Blighty, a cruel irony because you can practically see home from Dunkirk. The water is too shallow for the larger rescue ships so many commercial and private boats brave the treacherous trip to aid the evacuation.
Dunkirk follows the action on the land air and sea: we meet the soldiers trying to escape from France, the RAF pilots providing air support and a civilian father-son combo taking their small boat across the Channel.
Their stories are told in a non-linear fashion with overlapping events. Events on land take place over a week, on the sea it’s a day and the air it’s an hour – these stories are interwoven to create the narrative. It’s a bold choice that works to create emotional stakes in the individual stories, which are heightened during the overlapping moments.
There aren’t many huge-name actors attached to Dunkirk, aside from Tom Hardy who mainly acts with his eyes, his face obscured behind a mask. This is a film of primarily white male actors; there a few ladies milling about serving tea at certain points. If you’re looking for a film to explore the crucial and underappreciated role women and people of colour played in the Allied war effort, look elsewhere. A sour note, considering the Academy Award’s attempts to redress the #OscarsSoWhite controversy from years past. It is unfortunate that no black or Asian actors were given a role here; given the various heroes of Operation Dynamo that were not white men. Hell, even a female character that does more than serve drinks would have been better.
Harry Styles plays one of the main characters and does a very convincing job. Styles doesn’t have to do much aside from scowl and be nasty. It might not seem like a great feat of acting – but poor celebrity acting can break the audience’s immersion quicker than an Ed Sheeran song in Game of Thrones.
The chaotic warfare situation means there is less dialogue than normal, primarily in the land scenes. This feels believable because many of the characters meet during a time of desperation. Therefore Dunkirk believably eschews flowing exchanges of dialogue or philosophising about the nature of war. This also means that we learn little about the character’s backstories, focusing on their need to survive. There was a time when Nolan considered allowing the actors to improvise the dialogue, based on the emotions of the scene.
There isn’t the nobility of war that is displayed in some of the more unit-based war films from the units on the ground. This isn’t Inglourious Basterds where there’s a group working together for a common goal. Dunkirk feels like every man for himself; unity between the soldiers is razor thin.
Dunkirk doesn’t need to manipulate the character’s situations to add inter-personal drama; suspense comes from their circumstances. It feels like a realistic portrayal of how escaping the beach would have felt at the time with all the loud and disorientating sounds, combined with the constant sense of dread.
Nolan’s direction is masterful; this is a film that demands the big screen treatment. The wider battle feels loud and scary. Because we never see the enemy troops, it amplifies the jeopardy. Hans Zimmer’s music brilliantly scores the film, adding foreboding and dread to the crucially tense moments.
Dunkirk is an excellent war film that throws the viewer into the thick of the action from the outset. From here is a relentless 2 hour ride that flies by in a breathless blur. The film starts, puts your attention in a headlock and doesn’t yield until the credits roll. It will stay with you and make you think about what it was like to really be part of the Dunkirk evacuation.
War is hell
8 Drunk Harry Styles out of 10