REVIEW – DUNKIRK – Christopher Nolan returns with a superb and unconventional war film about the BFG trying to save the British Army after they decided to Brexit.
Young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) needs two things. One: to get out of Northern France and get home. And two, to have a shit.
Nolan’s movie never fully decides whether he achieves both. But it is testament to his brilliance that the whole film concerns itself with the nitty-gritty of survival alongside the historical import of it.
Along with 400,000 of his comrades in arms, Tommy is trapped on the beach with the Germans only miles away. At the same time, their planes strafing the lines of waiting soldiers. The Navy can’t get in to pick them up because of the shallow draught and the airforce is apparently reluctant to risk their planes when an invasion of Britain looks iminent. But Tommy still needs to get out.
Meanwhile, Mark Rylance – surely everyone’s ideal 1940s granddad – sets off in a small boat to help in the rescue operation. And above in the sky three spitfires seem to be all the RAF will allow. Luckily, Tom Hardy pilots one of them and there has been very little as satisfying in modern cinema as seeing Tom Hardy handle a spitfire.
With these ingredients – earth, sea, air – and an Inception like time structure – a week, a day, an hour – Nolan constructs one of those most original war films in years. There’s an immediate urgency and a latent panic all the way through, aided by one of Hans Zimmer’s most impressive scores. Nolan manages to places us in the middle of the action without ever glorying in the war porn. In fact, the most touching death occurs as a banal accident. And the terror of death comes as much from water as from bullets and bombs.
The performances are wonderful as well with Kenneth Branagh scanning the horizon with such Britishness that he might as well be suet pudding in a woolly sock. And then there’s what Nolan doesn’t show. The Germans. The homefront. Wives and sweethearts. Anxious mothers. Churchill. Generals in front of a big map.
The film’s concerns reflect those of the characters. The logistics, the numbers. For the pilots, the fuel they need to get home. Britain likes heroic failures. It’s why it glories in Scott of the Antarctic – who lost the race to the pole. And Mallory and Irvine – who died on Everest. It’s why Admiral Nelson – who died at the Battle of Trafalgar – gets a column in the middle of London, while Wellington – who won but survived at Waterloo – only gets a boot. Dunkirk was a defeat and Nolan’s characters see it as such. But his film earns its patriotic zeal and it’ll be a hard hearted Nazi who can watch the final reel without a tear breaching their defences.