I should probably preface this by saying I’m a big fan of war films. In particular the Second World War has always held a fascination for me. When I heard Christopher Nolan was directing a film about the evacuation at Dunkirk I was instantly intrigued. Even more so when I learnt that Nolan had used actual destroyers instead of CGI and it was filmed at Dunkirk. It seemed here was a director who’s pursuit of authenticity might out-way his pursuit of a Hollywood blockbuster *cough*PearlHarbour*cough*.
The film consists of three viewpoints of a singular story – from the beach, from the air and from the sea – representing the three main ways in which the war was fought. Based on the true story of Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of Allied soldiers between May 26 and June 4, 1940 which saw over 300,000 British, French, Canadian and Belgian troops being cut off from supply lines by the rapidly advancing German war machine.
The main protagonist, Tommy, played by unknown actor Fionn Whitehead, finds himself with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers trying to flee Dunkirk by boat. He tries and fails several times to leave and every time the German fighter pilots drop bombs which sink ships and prevent escape. The unmistakable sound of the fighter pilots diving on the beach is nerve wracking. I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the bombs to drop. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for these men and boys waiting like sitting ducks on a beach, with home almost visible across the water. The fear and sense of hopelessness must have been overwhelming.
The second thread is the story of civilians Mr. Dawson and his son Peter who use their boat to retrieve soldiers. They come across a shell-shocked soldier, played brilliantly by Cillian Murphy, and as they head towards Dunkirk, they witness plane attacks and sinking battleships, collecting as many men from the water as they can. We learn that Mr. Dawson’s eldest son was a pilot who died just three weeks into the war. You realise that this mission to Dunkirk, a mission perceived as perhaps a suicide mission, to save as many men as possible – it’s a personal crusade. To Mr. Dawson each one of these soldiers is his son. The son he couldn’t save.
The third thread of the story line follows two pilots as they attempt to shoot down as many German planes as possible. One of the pilots needs to bail out and is collected by Mr. Dawson’s boat, while the other makes his way to the beaches at Dunkirk to do whatever he can to defend the men there. Eventually though he runs out of fuel and lands on the beach only to be captured by the Germans.
This is an incredibly well done film. The muted tones and overarching grey hues perfectly set the mood and the soundtrack is exceptional, taking the audience on a roller coaster of emotion and anxiety. I spent most of the film on the edge of my seat, holding my breath in anticipation. While there wasn’t a great deal of character development, and to be honest, a great deal of dialogue, I genuinely cared about these characters – even Alex, played by Harry Styles, who I was expecting to hate, given my general dislike for One Direction and singers who think they’re actors. But, I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Styles can actually act and in a role which I imagine was emotionally taxing.
Kenneth Branagh plays Commander Bolton, who oversees the evacuation of the 300,000 soldiers. As he looks to the horizon and sees hundreds of civilians bringing their boats onto the beaches, his eyes well with tears – and so do mine. It’s a beautiful moment as the soldiers raise their voices and cheer – happiness flooding their faces for the first time. These everyday English men and women resemble hope for these men – hope and home.
When Tommy and Alex finally make it home they are fearful that people will hate them for failing to defend their country, that they will be seen as cowards because of the evacuation. As their train pulls into the station, Tommy reads the days newspaper which contains Winston Churchill’s famous speech which he made to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom on June 4, 1940. As the words ring clear in the air, the platform outside the train is flooded with people as the soldiers receive a heroes welcome, far removed from what they expected. Again, I am moved to tears at the relief of these men and the words, so powerful and still so relevant, from Churchill.
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Christopher Nolan has created a raw and unaffected account of the evacuation at Dunkirk. A skillfully crafted film, it is the attention to detail in Dunkirk which makes it so exceptional. Knowing this is based on real events makes it an incredibly emotional film and one which I strongly recommend.