Christopher Nolan must be one of the most eclectic directors currently working. From The Dark Knight to Inception – from The Prestige to Interstellar, he seems to favour no particular genre, preferring to go wherever his fancy takes him. But I would never have predicted he’d direct a classic war movie like Dunkirk… but then, of course, this coming from the same man who made Memento means that it’s actually nothing like Leslie Norman’s 1958 film of the same name. This version employs experimental time frames to tell three interlinking stories. Powered along by Hans Zimmer’s urgent soundtrack and decidedly spare in its use of dialogue, the film grips like a vice from the opening shot to the closing frame.
The first strand concerns a young soldier, appropriately enough named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who is desperately making his way to Dunkirk beach in the hope of finding a boat to take him to safety. Along the way he meets up with the strangely taciturn Gibson (Damien Bonnard) and with Alex (Harry Styles – relax, it turns out he can act). The three men brave the dangers of ‘The Mole,’the perilous wooden jetty that leads out into deeper water where the larger ships can dock, but finding a safe berth is not easy and they are forced to seek alternative means of escape. The soldiers’ story plays out over one week.
Next up, we encounter Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a quietly spoken boat-owner who answers the desperate call for help and sets off for Dunkirk from his home port in Devon, with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan), a young lad desperate to prove himself to his parents. On the way they pick up ‘the shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy), a man so traumatised by his recent experiences that he can barely speak and who is clearly in no great hurry to return to France. This story is enacted over the course of one day.
And finally, in the deadly skies above Dunkirk, we meet Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), two spitfire pilots charged with the thankless task of taking on the might of the Luftwaffe, buying time for the fleeing army to make its escape. In what at first appears to be a perverse move, Nolan keeps Hardy’s distinctive features mostly hidden behind goggles and an oxygen mask – but then you realise that he’s doing it for a reason – to emphasise the fact that the individual pilots who took part in this conflict remain largely unknown. Their tale, dictated by the amount of fuel that a Spitfire can carry, takes only an hour.
But of course, the three strands are interwoven like an expertly braided length of rope and it’s to Nolan’s credit that the ensuing events never become confusing, even when one particular character appears to be in two places almost simultaneously. What this film does splendidly is pull you into the heart of the hurricane and hold you there in almost unbearable tension.
This is after all not a film about bloodshed – in fact we see very little of that onscreen. It’s more about the brutal realities of survival, the mental toll on the participants and the quiet heroism of those who participate in the carnage. It’s the true life story of a military miracle, pulled off against all the odds. It may not be Nolan’s finest achievement – I’d hand that accolade to The Prestige – but it’s nonetheless a superbly affecting film that justifies all the rave reviews it’s been getting.
Where will Nolan go next, I wonder? Well, I suppose he’s yet to make a teen romance. But I won’t hold my breath.