Some of the greatest British war films deal with the nation’s catastrophic failures in military history: A Bridge Too Far, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and now Dunkirk can confidently add itself to the list.
Ostensibly, of course – the Battle of Dunkirk was spun into a victory at a time when morale in Britain was desperately needed; it now faced Hitler’s formidable Wehrmacht alone. But no propaganda campaign could conceal the truth; the Allied armies in Belgium and France had been utterly routed and driven to the French coastline by Germany’s dauntless panzer divisions. General Sir Alan Brooke famously wrote in his diary, “Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) now.”
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is sparse in dialogue, relying instead on impactful visuals to guide the plot through its 106-minute duration – the director’s shortest film to date. Moreover, the blood and carnage of Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan is noticeably absent.
Instead, Nolan creates a relentless sense of tension to unsettle the viewer, which is intensified by an omnipresent Hans Zimmer score. It’s the fear of a screeching dive-bomber, the dread of a fizzing torpedo, and the inherent terror of soldiers trapped helplessly within the steel walls of a sinking ship. On the beaches, shattered soldiers lurch between desperation and disbelief – zombies shuffling in the dunes.
There are strong performances from the leading players. Kenneth Branagh is typically reliable as a resilient naval officer orchestrating the evacuation from a heavily targeted jetty. Mark Rylance is excellent playing a civilian sailor driven by a sense of purpose and duty to assist in the rescue of the hapless soldiers. And despite the economy of his lines, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot is the soaring hope that anchors the chaos and despair below on the sea and beaches. The aerial combat sequences, sparing CGI for actual aircraft footage, deliver some of the most compelling sequences in the film. Like the great Steve McQueen, Hardy is all too aware of his screen presence, which he has worked tirelessly to cultivate, and thus now selects his roles accordingly.
Ultimately though, it’s Nolan’s direction that will rightfully garner the plaudits. Working in the unfamiliar realm of historical context after a number of fantastical genre pictures, he demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of and respect for the subject he’s exploring, and you can sense his hand at every twist and turn. The sustained, and at times practically unbearable, level of anxiety he generates in Dunkirk is so unforgiving that the final credit roll is almost greeted with relief.
Dunkirk is a masterclass in contemporary filmmaking and undoubtedly represents Nolan’s finest hour.
In cinemas: July 20, 2017
Starring: Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance
Directed by: Christopher Nolan