It commences abruptly: a group of British soldiers walk through an eerily quiet French town as propaganda leaflets fall around them. Suddenly, gunfire erupts and a tense chase sequence begins. Then, as if stepping through a curtain into another world, Private Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) finds himself amongst thousands and thousand of men on the beaches of Dunkirk, desperately awaiting rescue.
And so begins Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, inspired by the true-life story of the rescue of some 338,000 Allied troops from France during World War II. Forced to the beaches of Dunkirk by Nazi forces, they seemed doomed – until a nationwide flotilla of civilian and military forces sailed across the English Channel to bring them home. Even today, the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’ is invoked in times of national crisis.
Ever eschewing the linear narrative, Nolan tells the story via an overlapping three-part structure: Tommy and his compatriots on land (and sea) desperately trying to make it home, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend George (Barry Keoghan) as they bring their boat to Dunkirk, and RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they protect the vessels mounting the rescue.
In what seems an effort to reflect the disparate experiences of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians involved, we follow them through one week, one day and one hour, respectively. We are barely told the characters’ names, even while the cameras bring us smack into the heart of the action. You can practically taste the chaos, the confusion and yes, the fear that is writ large on every man’s face as the bullets fly and the bombs go off and the ships sink.
As with all Nolan movies, pay close attention to proceedings or you will get lost. This time round, even the dialogue is minimal. Instead, Hans Zimmer’s score is allowed to take over large parts of the story, building up the ever-increasing tension. In a quite brilliant means of foreshadowing the terror to come, the terrifying sound made by Stuka dive bombers become an integral part of the soundtrack.
The nervous glances upwards of men on the beaches as a faint noise begins in the distance will have you holding on to the armrests of your seat, before the German bombers emerge to wreak havoc. As one veteran puts it in Joshua Levine’s “Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk”, a key source for the film: “It was the most hellish, terrific noise you could ever encounter.”
Nolan has spared no effort in his quest for authenticity and practical effects. Much of the action was filmed on the actual beaches of Dunkirk, with a cast of some 1,500 extras. It’s all lovingly and beautifully choreographed by the IMAX cameras of which Nolan is so fond (this is no exaggeration: the movie MUST be seen in IMAX), while an extended aerial dogfight with actual Supermarine Spitfires and German planes is simply gripping.
For all of Dunkirk‘s virtues, there is little by way of characterisation in the movie, which is really all about the cinematography and the soundtrack. The nominal lead Whitehead – playing what must surely be the unluckiest British soldier in Dunkirk – is largely unmemorable, perhaps deliberately so. And if Nolan was looking for a raw performance from his young actors, he gets it from the likes of Glynn-Carney and Keoghan. Though it must be said that Harry Styles (not a piece of stunt casting from Nolan, who was only vaguely aware of Styles’ fame) is more than decent as Private Alex.
It is the veterans who really shine, with Rylance the epitome of the stiff upper lip that brought the British through the war. In an echo of his performance as Bane, Hardy spends most of the movie behind a mask but is still quietly compelling. Frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy conveys the trauma of the average soldier, while Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) exude dignity and strength. All in all, it’s a story about terrified men finding the strength to do brave things.
Of late, there’s been a surfeit of historical dramas centred on key moments in British history, starring big names such as Brian Cox, Gary Oldman and Gillian Anderson. Viceroy’s House (colonial history) and Churchill (World War II) were decidedly mixed, while Darkest Hour (WWII) and Victoria and Abdul (the British in India) will hit our shores later this year.
But Dunkirk, based on arguably THE defining moment of 20th century British history, is undoubtedly the best of the British historical dramas of 2017, and by some distance too. It is no surprise that we’ve christened Dunkirk the war movie of the year.
Catch Dunkirk in Singapore theatres and in IMAX® 3D from today, July 20.