The second was that this is probably the shortest Christopher Nolan movie I had ever seen with a runtime of about 1 and ¾ hours.
And the third was that Dunkirk was not going to be a blockbuster thrill ride that a lot of us cinemagoers sign on for when we purchase our ticket. In fact, it was going to be a bit of a buzz kill.
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In case you need to brush up on your modern history the Battle of Dunkirk took place in 1940 in World Ward 2 and was basically the end of the line for the German advance across Europe. From here it was a hop and a skip across the English Channel and into Britain.
The battle itself was actually a defence and evacuation scenario. The German’s had halted their advance to preserve their tanks and protect their flanks, but in doing so they had cornered over 400,000 allied troops on the beaches and left it to the Luftwaffe to finish them off.
To cut a long story short, the challenge was to get these troops across the channel and back to England where they could regroup. The first day of the evacuation didn’t go to well so they put out an emergency call for help and over 400 civilian craft responded; fishing boats, pleasure craft etc. Over the course of 8 days they managed to rescue over 330,000 soldiers against incredible adversity. So the German’s halting their advance was actually a huge mistake because they threw away the opportunity to completely decimate a massive contingent of allied forces.
Christopher Nolan’s film puts you right in the middle of this logistics nightmare and you get pretty bloody decent idea as to how massive that adversity really was.
The film Dunkirk is incredibly bleak. In spite of this awesome human feat it is not a feel good story of man triumphing against the odds. The great Winston Churchill himself articulated it very well saying, “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
This is a story about a defeated army, running for their lives and that sets the mood of the film. Now the historical facts are the story here, the movie doesn’t hold your hand a guide you through it as such, it puts you into the situations right next to the characters and leaves you to figure it out. I mean there’s not much to figure out as such, it’s pretty obvious. They’re stranded, they need to get out and they’re pretty much fucked if the Luftwaffe fly in or the Germans decide to do one final push to the beach.
As such you get to share the experience from a few viewpoints, from the infantrymen stuck on the beach, the spitfire pilots desperately trying to defend them so the evacuation can happen, the ranking officers trying to coordinate the evacuation and the civilians who donated their boats and lives to helping out.
The thing that initially pulled me into this movie was the cinematography and the sound. The visuals are spectacular, and they sell the scale of the evacuation so well, particularly the long shots of the beach where you get a real indication as to how far out the shallows went and how vulnerable the soldiers were formed up on that sand, just lining up either to get onto a boat or be picked off. The footage of the dog fighting scenes and the cockpit views from the spitfires are some of the best aerial combat scenes I’ve ever seen.
The whole film was so immersive. But the thing that got me the most and completely rattled me to my core in some scenes was the sound.
The gunfire is utterly terrifying. The first rifle crack had me jumping out of my seat and from then on in every time a shot was fired I felt the power behind it and it made me very uncomfortable. The ability it had to extinguish the life of whoever was on the receiving end of it. This was only eclipsed by the screaming of the planes as they dive-bombed the beach, like an alarm that was signifying the end of your time on this mortal coil. It just added to the immersion. And while the casualties are high, the gore is not excessive, not at all a lot is implied and without showing too much you still feel the impact because of the amazing visuals and sound, and ultimately the sell from the cast.
It’s not a dialogue heavy film and yet the cast are the ones that bring together the whole package with the authenticity of their performance. They are the ones amidst all the scenery that give this context. Their performances whether under gunfire, on board a sinking ship, in the cockpit or even in the quieter moments are sublime. They talk like real people, there’s no bullshit exposition dialogue. They don’t treat you like an idiot, you’re a person, they’re people and you should be able to relate.
I really couldn’t fault any of them, standouts were Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles as the infantry men stuck on the beach, Cillain Murphy as the shell-shocked soldier, Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson who lent his boat to the cause and Kenneth Branagh as the commander in charge of getting the men off the beach. And of course what’s a Christopher Nolan film without Tom Hardy, who plays Farrier the hero pilot and much like his character Bane, in the Dark Night Rises spends almost the entire movie covered in a facemask.
In spite of knowing the story, knowing the history and the fact that this evacuation would lead to a turning point in the war, for me the whole film was completely drenched in despair.
It’s no date movie, it one of those films they’ll play to modern history students as part of the curriculum.
I found myself watching this film thinking, how the fuck as human beings after all that has gone before can we allow this kind of shit to still happen in this day and age? We really have not learned a thing.
Because of that I have to say take a bow Christopher Nolan, I’ve enjoyed some of your movies in the past I’ve hated a few too and I’ve thought that all of them have been way too long but Dunkirk is a total triumph. You elicited a response form me that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with and you made me think, long after the credits rolled.
Four out of five. 🍿🍿🍿🍿