It will never be a bad time to make a film about fighting Nazis. In director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which opens Friday, he revisits the epic battle between the Allies and the advancing German Army during World War II in an utterly spectacular new war film. Cahir O'Doherty reviews the stirring result starring Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Barry Keoghan – oh, and some guy called Harry Styles.
For America, World War II officially started with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but for the British it began two years earlier.
Perhaps that’s why so few here in the U.S. know about Dunkirk, a pivotal battle in the course of World War II in Europe. In Christopher Nolan’s utterly spectacular new film Dunkirk, the British director aims to fix that wrong with a stirring retelling of a pivotal land battle in Europe between the Allies and the advancing German Army during World War II.
If you don’t know the history, Dunkirk brings you right up to speed in the first 10 minutes. It’s the spring of 1940 and the Wehrmacht are sweeping through western Europe using a new form of warfare they call Blitzkrieg (literally lightening war), and neither the French or British armies are capable of stopping their violent onslaught.
As the film opens a young British soldier called Tommy (played by soulful newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is making his way with his platoon through a deserted French town when they come under German attack.
The tension is amped up by Nolan’s handheld camera, giving you Tommy’s point of view as he tries to escape rapid fire from an enemy he can’t even see.
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His rifle jams as he’s pursued by his enemies, forcing him on toward the massive beach where he can’t believe what he sees: over 400,000 British troops who are all sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by German Air Force bombing parties.
Trapped on the beaches of Normandy the soldiers are easy pickings for the Luftwaffe, and we don’t have to wait long for the rapidly firing Messerschmitts to arrive.
Every terrifying detail of their predicament is vividly presented. There’s no cover, no way to fire back, no waiting British gunships to escape to, and it increasingly becomes clear -- no way out but death.
Playing a British admiral who is as stranded as his own men, Kenneth Branagh’s character understands better than anyone the long odds that his men are facing. An experienced old sea dog, he knows Churchill won’t risk losing half his naval fleet on a rescue mission this early into the war effort, and the same consideration applies to his grounded warplanes.
What this means for the men on the beach is that they’re effectively on their own, with no way out and no way back, and as this reality starts dawning on the stranded men panic begins to set in.
At this point Nolan daringly breaks up the action and the timeline. Some scenes are played as flashbacks, while others seem to be happening in real time.
First, across the sea in England, we meet Mark Rylance playing a character called Mr. Dawson. Dawson owns a small boat and he has responded to the general evacuation call to sail to Dunkirk and risk his life with the help of young George (played by Dubliner Barry Keoghan) in a brave attempt to bring some soldiers home.
What many Americans may not know is that the tide in Dunkirk was much too shallow for the large British ships to get close enough to aid the evacuation in the first place. So what started as a last hope operation of small crafts ended up being the best hope the lads on the beaches could ever have asked for.
Rylance is the heart and soul of the film, playing exactly the kind of only way out is through stalwart you’d want on your side once the stuff hits the fan.
At Dunkirk, to the horror of the British officers, a plainly marked Red Cross ship carrying the wounded is targeted, bombed and sunk by the Germans within minutes, sinking so close to the pier it almost cuts off any possibility of another ship ever making dock there.
The terror and hopelessness are powerfully moving, and Nolan plunges you right in. When ships sink the camera goes with them, taking you into darkness and flooding water. Time and again Nolan puts you right at the heart of the events, and he makes you feel the fear and dread the men do.
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Overhead, three brave RAF pilots are in the air on their way to engage the massive German Air Force bombers that are sinking every big British convoy ship that makes it away from the beach.
One of the pilots is named Farrier (played by a perfectly cast Tom Hardy). Farrier and his two fellow airmen have limited fuel and limited time to stave off disaster and they make a valiant effort, risking their lives time and again in lethal air battles without flinching.
Hardy wears an oxygen mask for most of the film and he barely utters a line, or at least one that you actually can make out, instead conveying most of his character’s thoughts with his eyes. I must admit he does a very fine job of it.
As he makes his way toward the rescue mission in France, Dawson’s boat comes upon a capsized British gunboat with a shell-shocked soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) cowering on top of it. Murphy is damaged possibly beyond repair by what he’s just lived through, as quickly becomes clear when we discover he can’t communicate with his rescuers.
Murphy reminds us that war damages the mind as well as the body, and he’s excellent as a heart shook soldier who has been terrorized past human endurance.
When it becomes clear that Dawson’s boat is heading back toward the battle instead of away from it Murphy gets into a panicked scuffle with Dawson and young George, with the latter taking a hard fall that cracks his skull. It’s a reminder of war’s true cost, because the possibility of death is literally around every corner and often unexpectedly so.
There are some important caveats. Once again Nolan has employed one of his utterly apocalyptic orchestral scores. The blaring score adds to the dramatic tension, but it seems to want to dictate your response rather than trust you to arrive at it. Full of atonal surges that contrast or compliment the onscreen explosions, they more often distract from than add to the experience.
A surprise is pop star Harry Styles’ acting chops. He inhabits his role with as much conviction as his costars and is, I have to admit, completely believable as a frightened soldier desperate to get home.
It’s not known why Hitler didn’t pound the British Army from the air when he had them cornered at Dunkirk. Some have speculated he didn’t want to enflame resistance in a country he expected to conquer quickly. Others suggested he wanted to conserve his firepower for other military campaigns.
Whatever the reason, his reluctance allowed over 300,000 men to escape back to England, bolstering the British war effort, as they stood alone in Europe against the Nazi menace.
There will never be a bad time to make a film about the heroics of those who stood up to Nazism, and Nolan has genuinely outdone himself with Dunkirk, which is for my money the finest and most flawlessly presented film of his career.
Go and see it and marvel as tens of thousands of ordinary British people work alongside their military to defeat fascism, in a communal effort that quickly became known as the Dunkirk Spirit. When aid arrives from England in the form of small crafts they bring with them the most precious commodity of all: hope.
That hope was strong enough to stand firm in the years ahead until the war and the world was won again. Dunkirk is a worthy tribute to their courage.
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