On the surface, Dunkirk doesn’t look that different from dozens of other war films.
There’s plenty of human drama, good versus evil, stoic determination and courage in the face of fear – not to mention things blowing up. But when a war film can keep an audience totally absorbed for two solid hours and have them break into applause at the end, you know it’s tapped into something.
Director Christopher Nolan has approached the story with subtlety and care – not just because the 1940 Allied evacuation at Dunkirk is so well known, but because there are so many ways to muck up retelling it for a modern audience.
Sentimentality, one-eyed patriotism and jolly joke cracking are all out. This is the pointy end of war, with the enemy just over the hill (more or less) and the Allies exhausted, demoralised and desperate to get home.
You are drawn in by a number of factors, not least of which is the sparse dialogue. The vision takes in everything – land, sea and air – so like the characters you’re waiting; watching at all times, uncertain whether there’s about to be rescue or attack, good news or disaster. The tense musical background combined with the tick-tock of a watch is a constant reminder that time is running out, and that even though home is almost visible from across the Channel it might as well be a thousand miles away if rescue doesn’t come in time.
Dunkirk is an ensemble film, and the cast is ably led by Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander at Dunkirk and Mark Rylance as a stoic civilian boat skipper. Yet, really, their roles are just as important as those of a few Air Force pilots, a couple of young sailors and a group of soldiers looking for the safest way off the beach. All this as the air raids continue and U-boats prowl the waters off the coast.
Teenage fans of One Direction will no doubt be keen to see band member Harry Styles in his first acting role. He’s pretty good but, no, he isn’t on screen all the time (sorry, girls) and his character doesn’t wear a halo of goodness – he’s flawed just like all the others and willing to do just about anything to get home.
And this is important. There were 400,000 soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk before the evacuation and more than 338,000 were rescued by the Royal Navy, by the French, Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians, and by coast-dwelling sailors who jumped in their boats and braved the war zone to do their bit.
Would people put themselves and their safety on the line in this day and age? I wonder.
It helps that none of the characters are specifically based on a real person. Christopher Nolan – who also wrote the screenplay – has taken the sweep of events, the myriad of real-life stories, and woven a compelling tale that takes you, with the characters, to the brink of the abyss.
Death, or the possibility of it, is ever-present, which exhausts, overwhelms and challenges the viewer all at once. Life can be snuffed out in a moment, ready or not, for friend or foe. What choices would we make in the same situation? It’s a question well worth asking.
You’ll be gripped until the final moment, and what you see will resonate with you long after the credits roll.