The evacuation of Dunkirk looms large in British military history, and bringing it to the big screen in the modern movie era was always going to be a big task. But having directed The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar, nobody is more qualified to tackle such an epic battle than Christopher Nolan. Using around 60 real ships during filming, Nolan literally brings out the big guns to recreate a complex and expansive battle which was fought on land, in the air and on the water.
Using minimal CGI and mainly relying on physical effects, Nolan goes for the gritty realism we’ve become used to seeing in World War II movies made since the release of Saving Private Ryan, but interestingly without the gore. Rated 12A in the UK, this is a war film without the shocking graphic violence seen in recent World War II movies, such as Fury and Hacksaw Ridge. Instead the tension is built up with a frenetic, and at times slightly obtrusive soundtrack, and an enemy which goes largely unseen. The decision to show so few German soldiers on screen makes the threat more foreboding, because the viewer is as unprepared for the next attack as the characters are, and it allows for an uncluttered portrayal of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance might be the big ticket names that appear in this movie, but they are used sparingly, with the majority of the action focusing on the younger soldiers who are played by mostly unknown actors, Harry Styles being the obvious exception. Styles doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, but he gives a capable performance which is probably much better than a lot of people might have been expecting.
The aerial scenes featuring the Spitfires are tense and frantic. Tom Hardy has fewer than ten lines of dialogue, but he still manages to make heroic pilot, Farrier, one of the most memorable characters in the movie. Cillian Murphy’s character doesn’t even have a proper name, being credited as “Shivering Soldier”, but he is captivating as the tragic and shellshocked soldier.
The evacuation of Dunkirk was a complex operation, which the movie attempts to convey by splitting the narrative into three time periods – one hour for the pilots, one day for the ships and one week for the troops on the beach. At times this makes for a somewhat disjointed story, as the action jumps from one time scale to another, and it takes a while to get used to seeing the same action more than once, out of sequence and from different perspectives.
In terms of military operations, the Dunkirk evacuation was the result of a huge failure. It marked a severe defeat for the British Expeditionary Force, and a potential catastrophe which could easily have led to the loss of World War II, with around 400,000 troops stranded in northern France after being pushed back by the German army. The seemingly impossible task of getting them back to British shores stirred something amongst the war-torn public, and this fighting spirit is captured nicely in Dunkirk, in a finale that will tug on the heartstrings of even the least patriotic Brit.
Dunkirk is a different kind of war movie, but that’s quite fitting for the portrayal of a military operation which was so utterly unique.