After spending over a decade in the realms of superhero fantasy (The Dark Knight trilogy) and science fiction (Inception, Interstellar), director Christopher Nolan turns his attention to real life and a seminal event from this country’s wartime annals: the miracle of Dunkirk. It’s a choice that may yet prove to be the British film-maker’s finest hour (and three quarters).
Operation Dynamo – the rescue of 338,000 troops from the port of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940 – was previously dramatised in 1958 by the father of the late, great Radio Times columnist Barry Norman. That film was a respectful tribute to ordinary folk from Blighty, who dared to sail their small boats across the Channel to help evacuate Allied forces trapped on the beach by the blitzkrieg tactics of the German army.
But Nolan’s epic is much more primal and visceral. There’s little preamble, as we are immediately in the company of teenage soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), as he escapes enemy gunfire and ends up on Dunkirk’s vast spume-covered beach, along with thousands of other battered, bewildered squaddies out to avoid the Luftwaffe’s bombs. The story then unfolds on land, sea and air with the desperate ordeals of Tommy and his comrades-in-arms (Aneurin Barnard, One Direction’s Harry Styles) dovetailing with those of Mark Rylance’s quietly determined boat owner and Tom Hardy’s resolute Spitfire pilot.
Their three stories coalesce into an utterly gripping tale of survival against almost insurmountable odds, a race against time at a crucial moment in British wartime history. It’s made all-the-more immediate thanks to Nolan’s use of IMAX and 65mm film, which puts the audience right in the boots of the soldiers, the bowels of capsizing ships and a Spitfire cockpit during dizzying aerial dogfights. To call it an immersive experience is an understatement.
Nolan’s reputation as a technical director is well founded, though he has sometimes garnered unfair criticism for a lack of heart. Here, he strips down the war picture, leaving out extraneous back stories and faux heroism, and allows the drama and emotion to come naturally from nerve-shredding suspense and the sight of our protagonists in perpetual peril, but complemented by authentic visuals, elemental spectacle, superb sound and another typically magnificent score from Hans Zimmer, providing a rhythmic, pulsating heartbeat for the on-screen action.
There’s also great work from an ensemble cast that sees Nolan newbies like actor knights Rylance and Kenneth Branagh (as the naval commander on the ground) rubbing shoulders with familiar faces from the director’s movie back catalogue (Hardy, Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked survivor). Meanwhile Whitehead and Styles (on their feature-film debuts) offer convincing portrayals of embattled and shattered boy soldiers.
Dunkirk the event may have been “a colossal military disaster” according to Churchill, but Dunkirk the movie is a glorious, breathtakingly vivid triumph from a director at the top of his game.