May/June 1940. 400,000 British soldiers are holed up in the French port town of Dunkirk. The only way out is via sea, and the Germans have air superiority, bombing the British soldiers and ships. The situation looks dire and, in desperation, Britain sends civilian boats to try to evacuate the beleaguered forces. This is that story, seen through the eyes of a soldier amongst those trapped forces, two RAF fighter pilots and a group of civilians on their boat, part of the evacuation fleet.
Dunkirk is quite simply an outstanding film, the best war film I have seen since Saving Private Ryan. Christopher Nolan’s screenplay and direction are tense and intense, putting the viewer right at the centre of the drama by telling the story of three personal experiences, fictionalised but inspired by real soldiers, airmen and civilians. The structural device of telling three stories over different timescales and having them all converge towards the end of the film is very clever, and not completely unlike Memento, another Nolan classic.
The performances across the board are terrific, from the more experienced actors like Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy (once again showing more with just his eyes than many actors do with their whole face) and Kenneth Branagh (a masterclass in reacting to something in the distance), to the younger actors like Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney and, yes, One Direction’s Harry Styles, all of whom are here starring in their first feature film, and who all deserve long and successful film careers. Styles in particular manages to shake off any preconceptions anyone may have had and establishes himself as a surprisingly gifted actor. It will be interesting to see where he takes this talent in the future.
Hans Zimmer’s score is once again excellent, helping to build tension throughout the film, as is the sound design and editing. I didn’t see this in an Imax screen but I think I will be before it disappears from cinemas. Even in a “normal” screen you feel every gunshot and every explosion right along with the cast. If this film doesn’t clean up at next year’s Oscars I’ll buy a hat and eat it.
I would urge anyone who hasn’t yet seen this film to do so while it is on a big screen. The story of Dunkirk represents an event that could have decided the outcome of World War II for Britain, and I left the cinema with a strong sense of pride at what our combined armed forces achieved in this battle, and the war, and also a feeling of gratitude for the sacrifices made to give us the freedoms we have today, something which I think is lost on many people.