Dunkirk movie review: Christopher Nolan's war movie is pure cinema - an unmissable masterpiece
Twenty five years ago, on a ferry crossing to France, Christopher Nolan had an idea for a film. Imagining the ragtag flotilla of fishing boats and naval vessels that, 42 years previously, had ferried some 340,000 British and Allied troops across the English Channel to safety, he wondered how one might best tell the extraordinary story of Dunkirk.
"By sea, land and air," went Winston Churchill's fight-them-on-the-beaches speech, and Nolan instinctively understood that all three aspects of that miraculous evacuation would have to be cinematically married. He was then 21, with only a few shorts to his credit: to shoot his film about Dunkirk, he'd have to learn how to make movies first.
He learnt, and fast, and it would be tempting to regard all his previous triumphs (Insomnia, Inception, the Batman movies) as a mere prelude to this film. It certainly merits the apprenticeship because Dunkirk is a breathtaking piece of film-making - a moving, pin-sharp, largely wordless evocation of what it must have been like for the poor men stranded on that bleak Norman beach. In May, 1940, when Hitler's panzer divisions swept through northern France, the British Expeditionary Force and several French armies were pushed back and stranded along a narrow stretch of the Norman coast. While the French First Army fought a brave rearguard action in the coastal town of Dunkirk, the BEF flooded on to a nearby beach, from which they could almost see the white cliffs of southern England.
They might as well have been a million miles away, so slim did any hope of rescue seem. A narrow pier was the only place where larger ships could dock, the Royal Navy was overwhelmed with large numbers of wounded, and on the beach, defenceless soldiers were being mown down by swooping ME 109s. It seemed hopeless, until the Navy had the idea of seconding every fishing trawler and pleasure boat they could find to help with the rescue. Thanks to the incredible bravery of ordinary English mariners, it worked and if it hadn't, all might have been lost.
Without a serious standing army, Britain may well have quickly fallen; if it had, and the Japanese had steered clear of Pearl Harbor, America might never have entered the war. And if Stalin's Russia had managed to resist without the help of American tanks and weaponry, the Nazis and a rump Soviet Union would have carved up Europe between them. Dunkirk is important then and Christopher Nolan has not taken the task of recreating it lightly.
In a pulse-quickening opening sequence, a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) races through a fierce street battle as his comrades fall around him and escapes on to the windy vastness of Dunkirk beach. The sea, sky and wide open spaces must seem reassuring at first, till the Messerschmitts start to dive. He finds a soldier burying a comrade and starts to help: from then on, their fortunes are bound as they battle to survive.
On the dock, a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) surveys the beach despairingly; in the air, two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) do their best to stop Stukas from bombing ships packed with the rescued; and at sea, a tight-lipped boat captain (Mark Rylance) tries to temper his young crew's enthusiasm by telling them "we're sailing into war". He looks like he knows what that means, and time and again in Nolan's film one is shocked by the boyishness of the stranded soldiers. With the exception of Harry Styles (who, annoyingly, can act), he's chosen unknown young actors to emphasise this inexperience, and Rylance and Branagh (both excellent, of course) play sad-eyed veterans who know what's coming.
The sure-footed focus of Nolan's direction is astonishing: moving fluently between cockpit, boat and beach, he builds three distinct and painfully tense narratives before uniting them in a phenomenally powerful and oddly beautiful ending.
This is real cinema: spare, terse, expertly edited. I saw it in 70mm, and so should you if you can. But mostly, you should just go see it - it's a masterpiece.
Films coming soon...
The Big Sick (Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano); 47 Metres Down (Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris J Johnson, Matthew Modine); The Farthest (Emer Reynolds); The Emoji Movie (James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Patrick Stewart).