Film Review: Dunkirk

See this film now.

From the opening scene where a handful of British soldiers make their way through deserted streets as Nazi propaganda about their being surrounded flutters down until the end this is a thoroughly gripping movie. I wouldn’t necessarily say entertaining as it left my nerves in shreds.

Christopher Nolan in the directing chair films it magnificently, and there are some amazing shots, particularly our first sight of the vast beach where the British soldiers have lined up, looking pathetically vulnerable stood out in the open.

The movie shuffles the time sequence, but while the first threw me the shifts are handled well and it’s easy to keep track of where everyone is. The film follows several characters throughout the day.

Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead is one of the soldiers we see at the beginning. And we follow his attempts to get off the beach. Posing as a stretcher bearer, hiding on the pier and at one point soaking himself to appear as one of the men from a sunken vessel, Tommy is determined to get home and there is a desperation to his actions which feels all too understandable.

Tommy meets other soldiers along the way including Alex (Harry Styles) and we see their attempts to survive against the odds. 

At the end of the pier is navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy)  are the men trying to sort out the evacuation. The pier can only take one boat at a time and the beach is too shallow for larger boats. With 400,000 men on the beach and Winston Churchill aiming for 30,000 to be evacuated they face a tough choice.  Their only hope is the small boats requisitioned by the government to help the evacuation.

One of these is the small pleasure yacht owned by Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who along with his son Peter  (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their hand George (Barry Keoghan). They head for France but en route find a shell shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy, the sole survivor of a U Boat attack who is understandably shaken by the experience and urges them to turn around for home.

Above them they watch as a three man Spitfire squad attempt to defend the beach and retreating ships from the Luftwaffe. Farrier (Tom Hardy) does his best but with a damaged fuel gauge has no idea how long he can stay in the fight.

The action then cuts between the different characters as their paths cross, events seen from different perspectives. 

The whole movie is almost unbearably tense, from Farrier having to try and work out how much fuel he has left before he heads for home to the soldiers on the pier who can do little more than wait and hope the next German bomb doesn’t have their name on. The feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped, even on the vast, wind swept beach is palpable throughout. The isolation of the men, even with home seemingly so close, is frustrating for the men and the audience, and a reminder of how close to Britain the land war got.

Most terrifying is the fact that even off the beach safety isn’t guaranteed. Scenes of men trapped in small, confined spaces rapidly filling with water are genuinely terrifying.

Several points during the film I found myself gripping the arm rests of the Odeon seats, or MWF’s arm. And in violation of the Wittertainment Code of Conduct I caught myself muttering “No” at several moments.

When the small boats finally arrive, and the relief and joy of the soldiers explodes I found myself openly crying. It was a combination of the relief and reaction of the men, and the respect for this real, genuine act of heroism by ordinary people.

For a war film the refreshing thing here is the lack of big showy heroics. For many there is only a fight for survival and some questionable acts along the way. But there are heroes.

Tom Hardy, even with his face covered with a mask manages to convey Farrier’s inner conflict. He must decide whether to stay longer to help even if it means he might not be able to fly home.

Kenneth Branagh’s naval officer exudes a quiet decency and heroism, a dedication to his job and duty to get the men to safety. Even im the face of danger he manages to keep his cool and even jokes with his army colleague over the other’s lack of sea knowledge.

But possibly the greatest hero here is Dawson played by Mark Rylance with simple nobility. Not only does he set out to help others but there is compassion in the way he handles Murphy’s shattered survivor.

When George asks if the soldier is a coward due to his behaviour Dawson replies that he is “not himself” before adding “he may never be himself again”. It’s a small moment that acknowledges the mental effects of war and hints at Dawson’s own experiences prior to this. 

This is an exceedingly well crafted war film with a cast which does great across the board, from old hands like Rylance and Branagh to the newcomers Styles and Whitehead. The dialogue, while sparse for much of the film, provides brief insigjt into the characters and the tense, relentless pace means that you’re locked in from start to finish. 

It manages to capture the big and small moments, while shying away from being overly sentimental or gung ho. The tone is handled well throughout and I was genuinely moved by the film. 

Verdict: An instant classic, Nolan delivers a masterpiece of war cinema. The ensemble cast do their jobs brilliantly across the board and the action sequences are amazing. 10/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to. BETEO.

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