Film review – Dunkirk (PG)
If you like your films stripped bare, this may be for you. Director Christopher Nolan leaves the movie cliches to one side in order to tell his audience what actually happened as the British army fled from the advancing German army.
It is an extraordinary telling of a war time incident because of what it lacks as much as what it contains. There are a few brief factual references in order to establish place, time and scale, a few name checks, such as the odd reference to Churchill. The Germans are not mentioned, and only appear at the end as two shadowy figures recognisable by their distinctive helmets.
Nolan dispenses with the usual formula of a fictional storyline or sub-plot built around a central character. There is no love story, or weeping parents. The main characters have no names; instead they represent 400,000 stranded soldiers, mainly young men – barely out of boyhood – attempting to escape the beaches and cross 25 miles of sea to reach home. Even Kenneth Branagh plays an amalgamation of naval leaders who were on the beach, though the casting of pop star Harry Styles somehow distracted from the whole point of making the soldiers anonymous. That said, he gives a good account.
Essentially, we are left to share the terror and desperation of these desperate young men as German planes scream down on them, strafing and bombing the vessels as they load their human cargo.
Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) does this beautifully without reverting to graphic violence. There is no blood, no scenes of injury. We know it’s there, but we don’t need to see it in order to feel it. This is a modern take on film noir which uses an imaginative score so that the music by Hans Zimmer depicts the horror and desperation of a fleeing army.
If there is any criticism it is that the silent and almost empty beaches failed to reflect the true scale of the evacuation, or the destruction of army equipment left behind. Nor did it seem to portray the sheer number of little rescue boats which ran to thousands, rather than the dozens shown. Nolan could have overcome this had he been more willing to employ CGI to recreate these scenes.
There were other faults. The French are unhappy that their own major part in the evacuation has been downplayed and that the few who are depicted are generally portrayed as cowards unable to save themselves.
A lack of panic among soldiers waiting to board ships made them look too much like the extras they were. In the final scenes the main characters are in a railway carriage which appears to be furnished with materials from 20 or 30 years after the war.
Nolan will please historians for its accurate reflection of the army’s frustration at what they saw as the RAF’s late arrival, whereas we now know the RAF played a vital part, not only in shooting down German bombers and fighter planes over the sea, but also helping to hold back German forces on land who were moving towards the coast.
Indeed the aerial scenes, shot traditionally from helicopters filming actual Spitfires, were among the most impressive, even if the pilots did fire unrealistic rounds of ammunition.
Dunkirk is a bold, harrowing film that succeeds most by forcing its audience to share the frantic circumstances of these unfortunate men, and feeling relieved that they never had to experience it for real.
Film rating: 7/10
Film length: 106 minutes