Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 106 mins.
Australian release date: 27 July 2017
Previewed at: The Edge Cinema, Katoomba, NSW, on 27 July, 2017.
In late May, 1940, vast numbers of British, Belgian, French and Canadian troops were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by enemy forces, waiting for evacuation to England - a situation that draws parallels with the ANZAC forces that landed on the beaches near Gallipoli in WWI, for they were also ‘sitting ducks,’ out in the open with nowhere to run or hide. To make matters worse, at Dunkirk there were regular strafing and bombing raids by the Luftwaffe as British Spitfires were in short supply. Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s first foray into historical drama, aptly titled Dunkirk, is a tense, confronting portrayal of these events that immerses you in the action while avoiding the blood-and-guts effects of many contemporary war films.
The narrative is split into three sections that depict a week on land, a day at sea and an hour in the air. Dunkirk opens with a young British Private (Fionn Whitehead) fittingly called Tommy (a slang name for British soldiers, the equivalent of the Aussie ‘Digger’), who’s fleeing enemy fire when he encounters another soldier, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), trying to bury a body on the beach. The pair head off to join the long columns of men - in their hundreds of thousands - queueing to board various warships waiting to dock at a narrow, kilometre-long mole. As a ship is being loaded with the wounded, it is bombed and the situation becomes increasingly chaotic. Meanwhile three Spitfires are making their way across the Channel, desperately hunting the enemy while flying low to save fuel. Simultaneously, a fleet of small boats and pleasure cruisers is making its way from the British mainland to the French coast to pick up as many soldiers as it can and rescue victims from the water as they pass sinking ships. These stories overlap but eventually fit into one cohesive whole, like a tight jigsaw.
Nolan somehow manages to imbue a kind of stillness into the mayhem of Dunkirk, like being in the eye of a cyclone. There is very little dialogue in the first half-hour or so and what there is, is often drowned out by peripheral noise. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, a combination of IMAX and 65mm film, is thrilling, especially his aerial shots and his underwater work - to experience the full effect of this, make sure you see it in 70mm. The action is accentuated by Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary score; it’s not something you’d listen to at home but it certainly amps up the tension. The movie has a huge cast including young novices like Harry Styles (previously the One Direction pop idol) and Fionn Whitehead, plus more seasoned actors like Cillian Murphy (credited as a ‘shivering soldier’) and Tom Hardy (as a pilot whose face is covered by an oxygen mask and whose dialogue, therefore, is largely indistinct). Credit must also go to Mark Rylance playing the skipper of one of the small boats and Kenneth Branagh as the Naval Commander in charge of the evacuation.
With Dunkirk Nolan has succeeded in creating one of the most atmospheric representations of war that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a bold attempt at chronicling a piece of history that holds huge significance in the British psyche; like Gallipoli to Australians, Dunkirk is a disaster that has morphed into a kind of victory, a testament to the human spirit. Nolan has said that it’s a story that he has always known although he’s unable to say when he first heard it. It’s acquired almost by osmosis. His patriotic depiction of the evacuation at Dunkirk ably demonstrates how the men and women who lived through it should be commended for their bravery despite the apparent defeat. It's a masterful piece of cinema.