Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of over 300,000 men from the French coast after being pushed back by the axis forces in the opening months of World War II is a hugely important cultural and historical event, but strangely has been largely overlooked by filmmakers, except notably for a 1958 John Mills film and the incredible one shot from Joe Wright’s Atonement, so it was about time for it to be revisited… and very timely it is too. At a period when the country is more divided than many of us have ever seen it, a film about said country literally rescuing it’s youth from destruction is very poignant and has an incredible amount of modern echoes. I’m sure both sides of the political spectrum will jump on it and hail it for differing reasons, but for me the film is not about the bigger picture. It’s the smaller one that puts it all into perspective.
Taking on three converging timelines, in typical Christopher Nolan fashion, cleverly shows the scope of the operation from a very human perspective, which is where we stay for the, surprisingly short, running time. This gives the film it’s heart and also it’s terror. I was lucky enough to see it at the IMAX and the shots that Nolan manages to get are literally breathtaking and throw you right in to action like I’ve never experienced. From dog-fighting in a rattling, cramped Spitfire cockpit to the windowless flooding deck of a torpedoed ship, it’s a claustrophobic, nerve shredding ride that puts you face to face with the characters and their experience. Take that 3D.
Dunkirk is by no means your average war film
The performances throughout are excellent too, very understated, and for many characters entirely wordless… Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance provide the seasoned gravitas counterpointing many a fresh faced young actor (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard of particular focus) with Nolan veterans Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy sitting strongly in the middle. And to address the elephant in the room, Harry Styles is great, fits in perfectly with the young cast, and honestly if it means 1D fans are going to come and see the film and learn its history, then I am all for it. There’s a certain authenticity to the understatement of the performances, it never feels like anything is being overdone, and it’s incredibly refreshing for a large scale war film. Though Dunkirk is by no means your average war film. There is very little fighting in it, no gore, and the enemy (I think purposely so) are hardly seen, a hidden menace off screen that drives the tension.
There is a point in Dunkirk when you wonder what it could have been, the type of film it could have turned into had Christopher Nolan not directed it, or if he had taken a different direction on the production. But after that split second thought, you are very glad he didn’t. The Achilles heel of pretty much all war films is historical accuracy… which is a major point. I am a huge history geek, particularly with WWII so am always especially sharp about accuracy… it’s subconscious. As the historian James Holland explains in his excellent article about the film, there are plenty of inaccuracies. The beach, although being the real one, has changed and isn’t quite right, the ships aren’t quite right, there isn’t anywhere near enough smoke and the number of men, ships and equipment on screen, though still impressive, is a fraction of what there was. But for me, none of this matters. The technology and know how is available to have easily put in 400,000 CGI men and clouds of CGI smoke, but that isn’t the point.
The film is authentic, and the feeling genuine, made more affecting by the vast amounts of practical photography. Those are real Spitfires we’re seeing, those are real men on the real beach, changed or not, and it means something. Die hard accuracy with the aid of CGI would have taken the heart from the film, and think Nolan knew that, what we’re left with, still mightily impressive, is an artistic choice to the film that speaks volumes.
Dunkirk is a special film, and an important film. My great grandfather was at Dunkirk in the merchant navy and it was emotional seeing his generation represented. Any big cultural event relating to the war generates huge amounts of interest, and will hopefully inspire a younger generation to think about and explore history, particularly now. The more we understand our past, the better we can understand our future.
Also, and equally importantly, it is a spectacular and wonderfully made film that gives you that real cinema experience of witnessing something on screen that is genuinely extraordinary.