Christopher Nolan’s latest in a formidable run of surprisingly intimate blockbusters (the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar) is an account of the Dunkirk evacuation, a famed tale from World War II that’s been filmed before but never this splendidly or grippingly.
Playing with time and perspective, Dunkirk offers three not-quite-intersecting plot threads — on the land with the infantry, in the sea with the navy and civilians who turned up to help, and in the air with pilots taking on the Luftwaffe — and features little dialogue and mostly unnamed characters we know little about, which adds to the sense of chaos and danger. It movingly reminds us that the hundreds of thousands of soldiers (English, French, Belgian, Canadian and a few Dutch) on that beach were young men who didn’t need elaborate backstories and cliché speeches about their girlfriends and all that Hollywood blather: they were just trying to get home.
Opening abruptly (but deliberately), we see a group of surviving English troops including one identified in the credits as Tommy (unknown Fionn Whitehead), who’s quickly marked as a bit of a coward and eventually arrives on the beach to join huge queues of troops waiting to be somehow saved as German planes occasionally bomb and strafe the masses. Tommy teams up with another less-than-noble sort, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction), and they’re hiding when they hear several of the commanding officers discussing what a disaster this whole operation is (one of the top brass is Bolton, as played by Kenneth Branagh, who unsurprisingly gets the most lines here).
Dorset-residing ‘weekend sailor’ Dawson (Mark Rylance) is also coming to the rescue, despite the danger, on the good ship Moonstone and with help from son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and slightly gormless chum George (Barry Keoghan). The first soldier they save is a downed and traumatised airman played by Nolan regular Cillian Murphy (from all the Dark Knight movies and Inception too). This grim survivor tells them not to continue to Dunkirk but Dawson’s having none of that. Cillian is very strong here as he becomes scary and irrational.
In the skies above and in a plot thread that takes place over an hour of time, as opposed to the week-long evacuation from the beach, we meet Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy), who engage in some brilliantly-staged dogfights depicted using just the right amount of CG trickery. Hardy even gets to have his voice muffled by a mask (a vague reference to his Bane in The Dark Knight Rises?). His fate is revealed quite late in the action as Nolan half-toys with the audience as we wonder if he’ll be okay.
At 106 minutes Dunkirk is just long enough for the pace to never flag. The tension is well aided by Hans Zimmer’s quietly atmospheric and nervy musical score, while the committed performances from the name cast members (Branagh, Hardy, Murphy, Rylance) are matched by the unfamiliar players. It’s one of the great films of the year so far, make no mistake, and yes, it’s one of the best war dramas ever made, full stop.
Rated M. Dunkirk is in cinemas now