Dunkirk review – Christopher Nolan's apocalyptic war epic is his best film so far
5 / 5 stars
Nolan eschews war porn for a powerful and superbly crafted disaster movie – starring Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and a decent Harry Styles – with a story to tell
Monday 17 July 2017 21.00 BST Last modified on Monday 17 July 2017 22.14 BST
Britain’s great pyrrhic defeat or inverse victory of 1940 has been brought to the screen as a terrifying, shattering spectacle by Christopher Nolan. He plunges you into the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France after the catastrophic battle of Dunkirk –helped by the now legendary flotilla of small civilian craft. It is part disaster movie, part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times.
Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen.
It is Nolan’s best film so far. It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.
The film is, of course, on a massive Nolanesque scale. The Battle of Dunkirk is traditionally seen in terms of a miraculous underdog littleness that somehow redeemed the disaster. The plucky small boats countered the memory of a British army dwarfed by Wehrmacht strategy and a British establishment humiliated by the suspicion that it was only Hitler’s miscalculation or mysterious realpolitik in halting the German advance that permitted the evacuation in the first place. A different kind of Dunkirk movie might have included High Command scenes in Berlin showing the generals arguing with the Führer about precisely this. Maybe Nolan didn’t want his film hijacked by a lot of satirical fake-subtitle YouTubers.
The event itself entered Britain’s pop-cultural bloodstream after the war by way of the opening titles to TV’s Dad’s Army, with its Nazi map-arrows pushing north and the Flanagan theme inspired by Leslie Norman’s 1958 film Dunkirk, starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough. But Nolan is not having any morale-raising laughter or chirpiness. His disaster is big; the stakes are high, the anxiety is unbearable.
We are forced into eardrum-perforating action straight away. A squaddie named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) scrambles desperately to the beach through the Dunkirk streets under heavy fire and sees the bad-dream panorama in front of him: hundreds of thousands of stranded French and British soldiers waiting all over the sand. Corpses are being buried there. There are no ships to rescue them and – apparently – no air cover to prevent them being picked off. Tommy is to come into contact with fellow soldier, Alex (Harry Styles, making a perfectly strong acting debut). Meanwhile, RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) is, in fact, engaging the enemy overhead and taking desperate risks with fuel. A grizzled naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh – channelling Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea (1953) – broodingly scans the horizon. And on the home front, a Mr Dawson, laconically played by Mark Rylance, takes his little cruiser, joins the people’s armada, encounters a traumatised officer (Cillian Murphy) and endures a terrible sacrifice, which he lives to see mythologised and falsified by the press.
In military terms, Dunkirk is almost entirely static for most of its running time: the battle is over before the film has begun, and there is no narrative context of the sort offered in Leslie Norman’s version. Nolan surrounds his audience with chaos and horror from the outset, and amazing images and dazzlingly accomplished set pieces on a huge 70mm screen, particularly the pontoon crammed with soldiers extending into the churning sea, exposed to enemy aircraft. It is an architectural expression of doomed homeward yearning. There is a tremendous image when some of the soldiers do manage to scramble aboard a destroyer, and are welcomed with tea and that now vanished treat, bread-and-jam, and so tiny rectangles of red surreally speckle the grey-and-khaki picture. It is also persuasively horrible when soldiers wait by the surf’s edge, which has become a lapping scummy froth, as if these are the survivors of some horrible natural disaster.
Christopher Nolan might have found some inspiration from the Dunkirk scene in Joe Wright’s 2007 movie Atonement, but otherwise he brings his own colossal and very distinctive confidence to this story. It’s a visceral piece of film-making.