This much-anticipated release from director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar) is not a typical war film. In fact, it could be argued that it’s hardly a war film at all. Sure, it is a story set during World War 2, but it is more a rescue story than a combat film. Nolan isn’t interested in churning out another story that pits young men from both sides of the conflict against each other on the battlefield because, let’s face it, that has been done plenty of times before. Instead, Nolan’s focus is on the logistical efforts to move British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk, having been driven into retreat by German forces, an enemy that remains unseen throughout the course of the film. With British naval ships under assault from air and sea and the docks extensively damaged, a fleet of over 700 vessels – fishing boats, ferries, private yachts and anything that could navigate shallow waters – were recruited to assist in the operation that ultimately resulted in the successful rescue of more than 300 000 allied soldiers, the overwhelming majority of whom were French and British. More than 200 ships were sunk, including nine naval destroyers, 145 aircraft were lost and the British were forced to abandon ammunition, vehicles and equipment while as many as 1 in 7 men were left behind to become prisoners of war.
Nolan covers the events from three perspectives – the cockpit of a British fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) trying to ward off German airstrikes; on board a small civilian boat heading to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation; and through a group of soldiers trying to secure passage from the beach by whatever means necessary. Each story offers context into a particular aspect of what seems an exercise in futility. For Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), there is little he can do to prevent British ships from being torpedoed from both air and sea, sending hundreds of men to their death as others scramble clear to await the next attack or secure passage to safety, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, a group of soldiers that includes Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneuron Barnard) and Alex (One Direction’s Harry Styles) take refuge in a beached fishing boat in the hope that the returning tide will carry them out to sea, only to find themselves under attack when the boat’s exposed position places them in the line of enemy fire.
Nolan creates tension in almost every situation, from the eerie footstep-punctuated quiet of the opening sequence as English soldiers walk the abandoned streets of Dunkirk before coming under fire from an invisible enemy, through to the final moments as Hardy tries desperately to land his plane safely on the beach, fully cognisant of the fact that to do so will most likely see him captured by the Germans. The sound design amps up the sense of impending doom, while the cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Her) effectively captures the overwhelming scale of the exercise via sweeping overheads of the beach and an ocean strewn with capsized ships and downed planes, while also revelling in the intimacy of the Spitfire cockpit, on board the small boat captained by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) or inside the hull of the fishing boat as is it is peppered with bullets.
This is very much an ensemble piece, with only a few characters being identified by name and we learn very little about them, other than the fact they are in this together, but the younger cast members (including Styles) more than hold their own against the likes of Branagh, Hardy and Cillian Murphy, who features as a shell shocked soldier plucked from the sea. Despite the fact that Van Hoytema holds many shots longer than is absolutely necessary, this is Nolan’s shortest work by a considerable margin. The screenplay, also written by Nolan, is light on dialogue and many scenes play out with nary a word spoken, but it all comes together exceptionally well to create something that is both poetic and powerful. The end result is that Dunkirk emerges as a grand story that is perhaps defined just as much by its quieter moments (sea foam gently caressing the bodies of dead soldiers) as it is by the execution of the action and, whilst it might not offer an individual moment that shines as bright as the beach scene in Atonement, Nolan has nevertheless produced something quite special.