As a Brit born way, way after the end of the Second World War, it’s incredible to consider just how much of a lasting impact the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk has had, both on my life and as a wider element of the cultural identity of the British people as a whole. The famous ‘Dunkirk spirit’ has been at the forefront of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ persona that the British have become synonymous with, it’s become more than a single event. As somebody who has grown up in a cinematic generation where most of the memorable war blockbusters have been based around American military narratives, I was excited to see just how different watching something a little closer to home would be.
I’ll begin with this simple statement, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a masterpiece. The film covers the horror and heroics of the infamous evacuation of British troops from three angles, the soldiers on the seafront, the Spitfire pilots in the air and the plucky civilians making their way from the other side of the English Channel to answer their country’s desperate call. Many war films get bogged down in their attempts to provide a richer context and background to the entire conflict, but Dunkirk is bold enough to drop the audience right on to the beach with the bare minimum of exposition. What this sudden introduction does is create a painfully claustrophobic, terrifyingly manic and breath holdingly tense experience for the audience. An atmosphere that does let up from the very first frame to the very last.
Though boasting a long, impressive cast list featuring the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles, the film is certainly more about the universal experiences and emotions than traditional character attachment. The frenetic pace of the picture leaves little time for sprawling monologues and quiet contemplation. Character development simply isn’t needed, as the audience immediately connect not with a particular personal story, but with the humanly universal fear of death and the will to survive. Regardless of the project, the sight of hundreds of tiny, unprepared, unbowed civilian boats appearing on the horizon in the time of need is always going to be a staggering moment. In the hands of Christopher Nolan and in the reactions of a performer like Kenneth Branagh, it proves to be absolutely unforgettable.
Amazingly, Dunkirk comes in at under two hours in total, proving that a masterpiece of the genre does not have to be a three hour epic. The film’s 12A rating proves also that a war film does not have to contain Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge levels of blood and gore to be heart poundingly exciting and heartbreakingly authentic. In this immersive, visceral, perfectly executed picture, Christopher Nolan has turned an unimaginable historical event in to a slice of cinematic astonishment.
With such a large and impressive cast, it always seems unfair to mention some names and not others, but for the good of the review, I’ll say that Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, Mark Rylance as civilian mariner Mark Dawson, Tom Hardy as Spitfire pilot Farrier and Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles as privates Tommy and Alex all give brilliant performances. As the first character the audience are given the chance to connect with, Whitehead’s Tommy is an endearing young soldier, equally brave and terrified, what else could you possibly be in such a situation? A lot was said about the casting of Harry Styles, but as the charismatic Alex he makes a much bigger impact than his acting experience would suggest.
As Commander Bolton, Kenneth Branagh gives a typically assured and, well, commanding performance. I’ve always thought of him as the grand kind of actor who is always in danger of being more himself that his character, but some of the most emotionally torturous and satisfying scenes are put at Branagh’s feet, and he handles them with exquisite expertise. Mark Rylance as civilian Mark Dawson plays a single character amalgamation of every brave boat owner who plowed, unarmed, in to the jaws of war. Rylance’s talent to command the screen even when playing a mild mannered character as he does here is a joy to watch.
The arguable MVP of the piece, however, is Tom Hardy as airborne Spitfire pilot Farrier, completing the trifecta of land, sea and air representation. The sheer amount of acting that Hardy achieves through his eyes, the rest of his face being covered by mask equipment, is really quite astounding, and the conclusion of his character’s storyline provides a jarringly bittersweet ending to the triumphant scenes that greet the rescued soldiers on the safe side of the Channel.
Overall, Dunkirk is, like I said, a total masterpiece. Not only a triumph in the genre of war, the film should be seen as a staggering achievement in the areas of disaster movie, unflinching direction, sensational action set pieces and adrenaline surging immersion. There’s a lot going on in this country at the moment that makes me ashamed to be British, but the swell of patriotism and national pride that one feels watching that iconic flotilla of tiny boats is almost indescribable. No matter what you do for the rest of your movie watching year, make sure that you see Dunkirk on the biggest screen possible.