Review: Dunkirk is a dramatic and honest telling of a defeat turned into victory

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton in Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon - Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon

Christopher Nolan and his producer wife Emma Thomas realise their dream of immortalising the largest evacuation of allied forces during the Second World War on lustrous 70mm celluloid.

Mark Rylance and Barry Keoghan aboard a boat in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. P

Mark Rylance and Barry Keoghan aboard a boat in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon - Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon

Dunkirk (12A)

****

If there's one thing British cinema can do, it is war films, particularly Second World War films. Dunkirk might be the quintessential British war film in as much as it is primarily concerned with overcast skies, a miserable time at the beach and endless queuing.

It may also lay claim to being the ultimate summer blockbuster – it's a relentlessly tense dramatic situation conveyed almost entirely by sound and fury.


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I try to avoid trailers as much as possible – they are promises made to be broken – but I caught a brief clip for this back in January, the image of a pen filled with helmeted heads, all turning and then cowering at the sound of an approaching enemy plane. That single image put across perfectly everything that the film could be, and half a year later here is a film that has kept that promise.

There are two reasons why this is the shortest film Christopher Nolan (who dragged his final Batman film out to two and three quarter hours) has made since his micro-budget debut Following.

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It is such an intense experience that it is probably all audiences could reasonably take. The second is that Nolan has concentrated on precision rather than spectacle. He finds the telling image, and doesn't bang the point home with needless repetition. This precision is important because the film has very little dialogue. Hans Zimmer's score may not be his most catchy but is among the most effective, keeping audiences strung up in a state of unresolved tension.

The film also sees Nolan return to the twisty storytelling of his early films. The film has three interlocking narratives happening over three different time frames: on the beach a selection of soldiers spend a week trying to jump the queues and get a ride home; over a day Mark Rylance pilots his boat over the channel to join the rescue; over an hour two Spitfire pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy, both exceptional) provide aerial cover.

The film is a phenomenal technical achievement and probably really does need to be seen in the full 70mm Imax format to be fully appreciated.

The aerial sequences are particularly remarkable. It is possible though that some viewers will object to the approach, and object in the same terms that they object to most Hollywood blockbusters: it's all action, it's too noisy, there's no story and the characters aren't strong enough.

I can certainly see why people might see it as a closed, perhaps pinched experience. Such is the technical proficiency and the completeness of its vision, it doesn't really leave much for audiences to do. I doubt this will be as re-watchable as some of his other films.

In Saving Private Ryan, the obvious reference point, Spielberg employed a concertina narrative, squeezing audiences with intense action and then offering up a period of recuperation before plunging us back into the next battle sequence. In Dunkirk audiences are effectively asked to hold their breath for an hour and half, suspended on tenterhooks, wondering who will survive the arbitrary meat grinder of the evacuation.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures/Melinda Sue Gordon - Credit: Archant

The form is a perfect expression of the subject. The evacuation was, for the most part, an undignified, even squalid, scramble for survival, filled both with rank cowardice and great heroism. Nolan's vision seems to mirror that exactly, an honest telling of a defeat turned into victory only by context.

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