Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Based on the Dunkirk Evacuation of 1940
Produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
Introducing Fionn Whitehead
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney
Photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC
Edited by Lee Smith, ACE
Music by Hans Zimmer
They were trapped by one of the most dreaded armies on the face of the planet. They were low on ammunition, they were hungry, they were scared and inevitably faced annihilation. They were stranded in a French town called Dunkerque. The shores on which flew the Union Jack were no more than twenty-six miles away. When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, Home came for them.
The Dunkirk Evacuation of 1940 is perhaps one of the most well-known events in the annals of modern warfare. Those of you who know about it should skip ahead to the paragraph after the next. Those of you who don’t, read on.
The Second World War began in September ’39. After the declaration of war on Nazi Germany by Great Britain and France, a British Expeditionary Force was dispatched to France in order to aid the latter in case it was attacked. On May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded Belgium and Holland. Three Panzer Corps pushed towards France through the Ardennes Forest. They steam-rolled through France and by the 21st, they had confined the BEF, remnants of the Belgian forces and the three French armies to a small section of the northern coast of France. BEF commander Lord Gort decided that an evacuation across the Channel was possible and the troops moved towards Dunkirk. The next day, the German forces stopped the advance rather strangely. The order of ‘Halt’ meant that the donkey work of cleaning up the surrounded forces was left to the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. This meant that the forces managed to put defences in place and pull back troops, in large numbers, to Dunkirk. The Germans resumed their pursuit on the 26th but had to face off against 40,000 valiant Frenchmen in the Siege of Lille between the 28th and the 31st. The evacuation from Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, saw battleships, cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, vessels, trawlers, torpedo boats and various other types of waterborne vehicles, including large numbers of civilian boats which, in many cases, were manned by civilians, participate. In nine days, close to 340,000 men were evacuated (As I researched for this history lesson that I’m imparting, I realised that though a majority of the forces made it back, about forty thousand men sadly fell into German hands). The British were understandably ecstatic, so much so that their Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, had to remind them on June 4 that “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Dunkirk sees Christopher Nolan reunite with the usual suspects in Warner Brothers, Cillian Murphy, Hans Zimmer, Lee Smith, Nathan Crowley, Scott Fisher and, in an unexpected cameo, Sir Michael Caine. Nolan’s DP from Interstellar, Hoyte van Hoytema (who also photographed Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the latest 007 flick Spectre), is behind the camera for this one as well, Tom Hardy also jumps aboard and producing the film with Nolan is his long-standing producing (and life) partner, Emma Thomas. Brother Jonathon Nolan is conspicuous in his absence, having co-written six of the previous nine Nolan directorials.
Well before the film came out, Nolan insisted that it wasn’t going to be a war film. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I heard this piece of news. It is a suspense thriller which focuses on the men involved in Dunkirk and how they survived the horrors of it rather than being a historical film. Nolan uses three perspectives to tell the story: land (the Army), sea (the Navy and civilian boats) and air (the Air Force). Omitted are the Jerries (the Germans) and Churchill and his boys in London. Nolan opts to focus wholly and solely on the men and boys at Ground Zero.
The film opens with British soldiers running through the streets of the titular town. They are being pursued by the invisible but ever-present enemy. The film’s central protagonist, Tommy, runs to the beach, where he sees a vast sea of fellow soldiers and a vast sea, with a couple of ships here and there. The tension sets in pretty quickly as the Luftwaffe bombs the beach, making one slightly nervous.
Nolan writes this film as he does most of his work: in a non-linear format. It isn’t tough to follow as long as you keep your wits about you. The three perspectives are titled The Mole, The Sea and The Air. The writing is excellent in every possible way. The perspectives change lithely and your attention never dawdles. The enemy is never seen in the film, but the writing makes one wonder where Jerry will pop up from. While the overt focus of the story is on the minds of the men, it is also, more subtly, a human story filled with emotion. It is a slap in the faces of those who say Nolan’s films have no heart. You have to use your loaf and look for the heart a little.
The film is on technically solid ground, with some great sound design, fine production qualities (Nathan Crowley) and fantastic practical effects by Scott Fisher and team.
Hans Zimmer provides epic music to the nerve-wracking on-screen events. Brilliant use of the ticking clock sound (from one of Nolan’s own timepieces), reminding the audience that, as James D’Arcy’s Colonel Winnant says, “Every hour the enemy pushes closer!” Music has not been used so stylishly in a film of this kind before.
Lee Smith cuts from one perspective to the other fluidly, leaving no room for error. He goes full throttle in his efforts to make the 106 minutes of screen time count.
DP Hoyte van Hoytema is in top form. I have not seen such photography in film in quite a while. He has a variety of looks on hand: the colours are cold and stripped down for the beach sequences but warm and solid for the aerial shots. One particular shot, that of three Spitfires flying side-by-side over the Channel, reminded me of Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain. Hoyte shoulders the 40-pound IMAX camera for quite a bit of the screen time and squeezes it into the Spitfire cockpits to create a claustrophobic environment. His team too deserves a huge clap on the back for the capturing of the shots of The Sea and those done masterfully in The Air. Hoyte doesn’t mind getting the camera drenched either in some nerve-wracking underwater sequences. I envy the people who got to see the film in IMAX 70mm. If it was so breathtaking in digital, it must have been awesome in the original format. It is really marvellous how the IMAX has been attached to the exterior of aircraft while the damn thing is airborne. Fantastic stuff!
The cast does a great job too. Sir Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy as Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant respectively are the anxious senior officers on Ground Zero, worried about the men under their command and the lack of transport. Their agony is evident when Bolton wishfully says, “You can practically see it from here.” Winnant asks what he’s talking about, and Bolton replies, “Home.” They are so near and yet so far. Sir Kenneth particularly is brilliant, which he always is. British pop star Harry Styles is pretty good as the slightly brash young soldier Alex. I doubted whether he could act, but Nolan isn’t known for bad casting and his belief in Styles really pays off. Aneurin Barnard as the silent Gibson also makes a mark, reminding viewers of the fear that can take over a person in situations like Dunkirk. Barry Keoghan (George) and Tom Glynn-Carney (Peter) embody the ‘British lads’ who are eager to do their bit for the war effort. Both are quite believable and bright prospects in cinema. Sir Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson) steps up the emotional aspect of the movie, getting into the skin of the ordinary British civilian who went to help the boys at Dunkirk. He is firm but calm in a role tailor-made for him. Cillian Murphy, a Nolan regular, is frighteningly real as the PTSD-stricken Second Lieutenant who, when rescued by Dawson and the two lads, is insistent that they ‘turn it around’ and return to England. Jack Lowden (Collins) and Tom Hardy (Farrier) are impressive as the RAF fighter pilots, sharing a complex chemistry despite never being in the same frame. Playing their boss, in a surprise cameo, is Sir Michael Caine, whose voice is as reassuring as always. Hearing it made me feel that everything would be fine. Fionn Whitehead debuts as the average British teen soldier and plays the role with a wonderful innocence and a curious determination that doesn’t make him seem like a first-timer at all. Kudos to him!
Christopher Nolan is at the top of his game as a director. He tells the story in its entirety without becoming over-indulgent, which he has been in his last two films. His direction takes this film to new heights. He serves it cold and warm. He keeps out sobbing girlfriends and wives and mothers, proud dads and sons, and most importantly, politicians. He opts to aim his guns at the men that matter and that perhaps made all the difference in the end. It is exactly the film he said it was in pre-release interviews. Take a bow, Christopher Nolan. With Dunkirk, you’ve officially entered the League of the Legends.
Whether you enjoy thrillers or not, Dunkirk is a must watch. It is powerful, taut and amazing. It is happy and it is sad. Above everything else, it is a masterclass by perhaps the greatest filmmaker of the 21st century.
Verdict: F (Frightening and Fabulous)
If you liked the review, please do share it on social media with every homo sapien that you know. And do watch Dunkirk. And no, Warner Bros. and Syncopy did not pay me, though I wish they had.
Up next on CINEPHILE STOCK: Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh on July 28.