By Phillip Guy Ellis (Northampton, England)
Star – Mark Rylance
Genre – Action – War
Run Time – 1 hr 46 minutes
Certificate – PG13
Country – U.K
Oscars – 3 wins from 8 nominations.
Awards – 51 Wins & 197 nominations
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
When you bother to look at the European map when you think about the war you realize just how close Germany’s western borders are to the United Kingdom. As a modern Brit you think of Germany as this financial behemoth in the middle of Europe a thousand miles away but its western reaches are just 179 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover, the distance from London to Leeds. This immediacy during World War 2 as the Germans pushed into France and the Benelux countries is why the British Expeditionary force was in Holland and Belgium so early in the war. Sadly 500,000 allied troops couldn’t hold the line and were out flanked and pushed back to the beaches in France and we suffered Dunkirk, Churchill’s greatest defeat.
Great wars and battles in history remain great material for big action movies and who better than Brit Christopher Nolan to have a crack at the genre, his first big movie about actual real events. Dunkirk (2017) already holds the distinction of being the highest grossing World War II movie of all time with its $130 million budget pulling back $527 million to date.
This is the third Christopher Nolan film to be written entirely by the director; the others were Following (1998) and Inception (2010). Memento (2000) was based on a short story by his brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote most of Chris’s other movies. Christopher Nolan is now being known for big movies and his fifth straight film to enter AFI’s Top 10 Films list, as well as his eighth film to be named one of IMDb’s Top 250 Films. That is serious filmmaking.
The director, along with his wife and a good friend, made the crossing from England to Dunkirk on a small period fishing boat, the way the civilians would have done during the original evacuation to try and experience it for themselves and the weather and hazards they would face. Nolan said it took 19 hours because of sea conditions. All sorts of characters participated in the Dunkirk rescue by private boats. Charles Lightoller, the most senior surviving officer of the Titanic disaster, participated in the evacuation with his private motor yacht, “The Sundowner”, having to turn back early on to refill the drinks cabinet after a shortage of cigars and whisky was discovered. It really was a different era back then and you can’t imagine 300,000 British youth prepare to defend our beautiful island today.
• Fionn Whitehead as Tommy
• Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter Dawson
• Jack Lowden as Collins
• Harry Styles as Alex
• Aneurin Barnard as Gibson
• James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant
• Barry Keoghan as George Mills
• Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton
• Cillian Murphy as Shivering Soldier
• Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson
• Tom Hardy as Farrier
Commander Bolton: The tide’s turning now.
Captain Winnant: How can you tell?
Commander Bolton: The bodies are coming back.
The war rages in France as hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers have retreated to Dunkirk. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private, is rather too close to the action and soon the sole survivor of a German ambush. At the beach, he finds thousands of troops in neat rows out to the shallow surf awaiting evacuation. There he meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who is burying a body. The two share water and beef jerky and head for the crowded jetties.
After a German dive-bomber attack they find a wounded man. They rush his stretcher onto a hospital ship, hoping to remain aboard, but are ordered off at the last. That was their first stroke of luck of the day as the ship is also attacked by dive bombers in the harbor. Tommy helps another soldier by the name of Alex out of the water. They leave at night on a destroyer, but also sunk, this time by a torpedo. Gibson had eyed a hatch earlier in fear of exactly this and frees Alex from the hold as many drown as they scramble back to the beach.
With only one reaming jetty suitable for embarking deep-draft ships the Royal Navy, under the control of Royal Navy officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), Churchill decides to enforce civilian requisitions of vessels back in England that can get to the shallow beach and get the guys home. The cigar smoking PM needs to get as many back as possible or he won’t be able to launch another invasion or, indeed defend his country and Britain will fall.
In Weymouth, a civilian sailor named Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) set out on Dawson’s boat Moonstone to answer the call rather than let the Navy commandeer his small trawler. Impulsively, Peter’s teenage friend George (Barry Keoghan) joins them at the last.
At sea, they rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a wrecked ship. When he realizes that Dawson is continuing on to Dunkirk, the terrified soldier demands that they turn back and tries to wrest control of the boat; in the struggle, George falls and suffers a head injury.
Elsewhere, above the Channel, three Spitfires cross the English Channel, heading towards Dunkirk. After their leader is shot down in a dogfight, one of the pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy), assumes command, though his fuel gauge is shattered and he won’t be getting home by the looks as they try to defend ships and troops below from the air.
Grenadier: Fighters coming in at the stern.
Dawson: Spitfires, George. Greatest plane ever built.
Grenadier: You didn’t even look.
Dawson: Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Sweetest sound you could hear out here.
It’s a little known fact that most of the German soldiers were ordered to take stimulants like crystal meth on the battlefield to keep fighting and advancing across Europe whereas the allies were on sedatives, which kind of sums up the conflicts in Nolan’s movie. We have the mostly dour, sedated and one dimensional British army patiently taking a pasting down below and Hans Zimmer incredible nerve shredding, tension pumping soundtrack above with the Luftwaffe battle very much the speed sniffing element of the film. In fact the film without that soundtrack may have suffered. But that’s the thing with Christopher Nolan. The soundtrack is a big part of his movie experience. The two men have worked together on a lot of movies and they are good. The soundtrack here is very special and Zimmer’s tenth Oscar nomination should have won The Oscar here, one pervious win for The Lion King.
It’s a very male film with no noticeable female cast but the women very interested in Harry Styles acting debut, no doubt, perhaps cast to bring in the younger crowd in Nolan’s tentative move away from his comfort zone of science fiction and fantasy. Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy are also there to help sell the movie and very much cameo role in the ensemble cast. Mark Rylance is the class of the field by a country mile as the lugubrious pipe smoking stiff upper lip Brit from times long gone. It’s not clear if this film was some sort of Brexit metaphor as many observers have commented when Nolan backed the ‘Leave’ campaign but the symbolic Spitfire scene near the end was certainly subliminal. It was the Dunkirk Spirit that pulled Britain through the war and drove our recovery but we are not those people anymore, considered in poverty in the U.K. if you don’t have a flat screen TV? We have gone soft.
Nolan did not want the realism and tension of Private Ryan and I’m pleased with that. The first half-hour of that movie was unbearable and graphic. Here the explosions swing violently between minimalism and dramatic and the troops strangely quiet and un-opinionated on events under that barrage. It’s a very stoic movie. Kenneth Brannon’s quivering lip performance is very Captain Blackadder meets Lord Melchett and you can see he is playing it for fun with a mischievous grin on his face.
Action wise it’s gripping enough and the outstanding tumultuous soundtrack doesn’t let up and you simply don’t want to still pause for a cup of tea. You will not have heard a soundtrack quite like this before in film for a very long time. The subtle nonlinear plotting is neatly done to emphasize each characters weaknesses and the Army, Navy and Air Force contribution in Dunkirk, equally as heroic. It is all rather neat though in the way Atonement and War Horse was and it lacked that gritty reality a war film needs. Even the explosions were choreographed to look pretty. Saying that it’s well worth the technical Oscars and clearly one of the best films of 2017.
IMDb.com – 8.0/10.0 (377,234votes)
Rottentomatos.com – 92% critic’s approval
Metacritic.com – 94% critic’s approval
New Yorker – ‘Nolan’s sense of memory and of history is as flattened-out and untroubled as his sense of psychology and of character’.
Film Comment – ‘It’s not always easy to know what’s going on in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk-which makes the film seem all the more convincing as an evocation of war’.
New Yorker- ‘The movie works. Time and again, the action swells and dips, like a wave, then suddenly delivers a salty slap in the face’.
Globe & Mail – ‘Technically awe-inspiring, narratively inventive and thematically complex, Dunkirk reinvigorates its genre with a war movie that is both harrowing and smart’.
Salon.com – ‘Despite all the substandard characterization, what we do see sucks us in enough to keep us invested and, at times, riveted’.
The Sun – ‘What we’re left with at the end of the horror, panic, and grim determination is a dawning sense of grace.
The Mail – ‘It’s not quite just a virtuoso exercise, though Nolan here proves himself a master of the technical effects he strives for and achieves’.
Rating: 4/5BEST QUOTES