Review: Dunkirk

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Watching a British war film hit the cinemas, directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan, I was thrilled to watch the finished project, particularly as the film concerns one of the most momentous events in British military history.

The evacuation of Dunkirk was on a colossal scale and Nolan has done an unparalleled job at capturing the chaos of it. He elects not to focus on a character or group of characters, unlike Spielberg with Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan or Michael Bay’s flawed three-way love story in Pearl Harbour. Nolan shows the event through a visual spectacle, rather than dialogue. The men on the beach, the civilian boats on their Channel crossing and the RAF as they hold off the Luftwaffe from attacking crossing ships and stranded soldiers. There are groups of characters for different situations, but none are focused on entirely, so we don’t escape the moment in the story of an individual. What makes it even more incredible is that Nolan extensively relies on practical effects, much as he did in the Dark Knight trilogy, with masses of extras and many authentic aircraft and ships.

From the start we are thrown into the action, witnessing the horrific events unfold, as Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton realises the task in front of him is nearly impossible and the soldiers find themselves in an almost hopeless predicament, enduring bombing from the skies and an ever-advancing German front surrounding the small French town.

Each focal character is very well acted. Branagh orchestrates the beach evacuation superbly, using his typically poetic style to convey both disparity and delight once the troops are off the beach. Harry Styles, alongside Fionn Whitehead in his first major film, offers a solid performance as a private soldier enduring the events. He avoids the cameo clichés that high-profile celebrities often have in films and TV shows, such as Ed Sheeran in his cringeworthy appearance in Game of Thrones. Whitehead also puts on a decent performance, suggesting that he will be a rising star in future films. Getting cast in a Nolan screenplay isn’t exactly something you see on every actor’s CV. Mark Rylance is dependable, giving a similar performance to that in Bridge of Spies, as the dutiful civilian boat-owner who takes up the call to use his family yacht to rescue men from the water.

Personally, I suggest that the standout performance in this film is Tom Hardy, who plays an RAF spitfire pilot. His scenes are perhaps the most intense, as he hunts down Luftwaffe aircraft attacking the ships, emitting his familiar calculated calm to the situation. His entire character is the personification of the British fighting spirit that Winston Churchill spoke of: despite the sacrifice we may need to endure, “we shall never surrender”. He flies on until the end of the film, running out of fuel and ammunition, yet continuing to down enemy aircraft, allowing many men to escape in the dying moments.

It’s a perfectly paced film, appropriately timing switches in scenes, none of which you’ll have preferred to have been viewing; you want to take it all in! Nothing is too short or drags on, you are simply left amazed by the end of the film. I don’t think I’ve felt more emotional after seeing the civilian boats arrive at the shores Dunkirk, to the joy and relief of the soldiers on the beach. It’s a truly powerful moment that left me stirred in my seat.

Dunkirk is getting five stars. There’s not another war film like it. It depicts the chilling experience felt by the Britain in the early stages of the war, and how the nation in its entirety clubbed together in its moment of need. It only makes Britain’s triumph, not only in the Battle of Britain that was to follow but the entire war, seem all the more remarkable. How close we were to defeat, how heroic we can be in the face of near disaster, to turn it all around. Nolan has masterfully orchestrated the incredible story so simply. Dunkirk will be one of the most re-watchable war films to date. It’s superbly acted, written and directed.