Yes, writer-director Christopher Nolan immerses his audience in the experience of Dunkirk.
By filming in 70mm and so made available for IMAX screen format, this is a particularly vivid recounting of that fateful week in 1940 when an invasion of Britain seemed not only possible but imminent. The rescue of the British soldiers stranded on the beach in Dunkirk, across the English Channel, has become part of British history, World War II history, and part of a proud British heritage. It is almost 80 years since these events and younger and many older audiences will be not so familiar with them. Here is an opportunity to experience and learn.
While Christopher Nolan began his career with rather short and small-budget films, he is now best known for his more spectacular films, The Dark Knight series of Batman films, his most tantalising cinema exercise on dreams, Inception, and his exploration of space in the future in Interstellar. In these latter films he has experimented with time and shifts in time (and, after all, his second film, Memento, had a trajectory which went from end to beginning).
Here are events with time and inter-cutting here. We are informed at the beginning of the film that the soldiers waiting on the beach at Dunkirk, the ships on the Mole, the authorities supervising while waiting and becoming more and more desperate, takes place over a week. Then there is a civilian boat leaving Dorset for Dunkirk experiencing the drama of war in the channel, which takes place over a day. And then there are battles in the air, two RAF planes countering the German attack, their bombardments and strafing, which takes place over an hour. This is demanding of the audience to appreciate the events of the week, of the day, of the hour.
The screenplay also uses the device of focusing on four particular characters who symbolise the numerous stranded Armed Forces as well as the civilians who, in the famous flotilla of private boats to the rescue, played such a heroic part.
The central character in the film is a very average and ordinary young British soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), seen trapped in the streets of Dunkirk, leaflets pouring from the sky, pursued by German guns (no German soldier is ever seen, rather heard with shooting), surviving, jumping over a wall, running towards the beach and finding the thousands there, lined up in files waiting for the boats. By concentrating on Tommy, the audience is able to appreciate the vast numbers, the fears, temptations to run away, devices to survive, like carrying a wounded soldier to a ship but being ousted, finding the hulk of an abandoned craft and a group hiding there, fired at by the Germans for target practice, stranded in the sea and swimming for life.
Kenneth Branagh is the naval commander, standing on the Mole, who represents the high command, concerned about the men, uncertainties about the rescue, thankful for the coming of the flotilla.
Tom Hardy is one of the pilots, in the fragile planes yet with their manoeuvrability, the limits on fuel, the flight tactics of the Germans, the pursuits, communication with authorities and fellow pilot, seeing the downing of planes – and his own decision not to return home but to continue defending the ships and flotilla from attack.
There is a substantial role from Mark Rylance as a veteran seaman whose son has been killed already in aerial warfare, has his younger son on board along with local lad later symbolises the heroism of ordinary citizens, rescuing a shell-shocked soldier from an upturned vessel, Cillian Murphy, coping with the rescued man’s fears of returning to war and wanting to turn back, some violence on his boat, yet his perseverance in effecting substantial rescues.
The cumulative effect of the film, the vastness of the cinematography, the extraordinarily insistent musical score with its range of instruments, pounding and pace, variations on themes by Edward Elgar, all make the film a substantial experience.
Dunkirk will probably take its place amongst the classic war films – and it is almost 20 years since Saving Private Ryan and the Normandy landings. The American film is a reminder that the British treat matters with a very stiff upper lip, which, though emotional, is not nearly as demonstrative, which means that in many ways Dunkirk seems a rather objective, while emotional, look at the events.
Yes, Churchill’s famous speech does come at the end – but, interestingly, is spoken by Tommy, representing the younger generation who are about to go through the Blitz and the Battle of Britain.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting