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The early months of World War Two were known as the phoney war for good reason, as Germany took Poland without Warsaw’s allies (Britain and France) committing much in the way of troops on the ground.
But the invasion of France in May 1940 finally drew the major allies into the war, as Britain committed her troops to the French. It was an ill-fated move that saw the Allies driven into a small strip of coastline at Dunkirk, France, awaiting evacuation under heavy German bombardment.
It’s against this backdrop that Christopher Nolan’s eponymous take on the evacuation takes place — and it’s anything but phony.
Dunkirk faithfully sticks to authenticity for the most part, both in the setting and machinery depicted and when it comes to the on-screen action. Between the harrowing sirens of German Stuka dive bombers and the often terrifying scenes in the water and on the beaches, the movie goes a long way to conveying the bleakness of the situation, as the Third Reich stands on the British welcome mat.
Think a more subtle yet no less harrowing Saving Private Ryan and you’ve got a good idea of what to expect from Dunkirk. Spielberg’s epic has the head-long leap into death that was the D-Day landings, a nail-biting sniper scene and that final battle, but Nolan has more than a few moments of his own here that had me gnawing my bottom lip in the tension and the terror.
Dunkirk doesn’t rely on stomach-churning gore like Saving Private Ryan though, the strained soundtrack effectively punctuating these sequences instead.
It’s not a glorified documentary then. Dunkirk uses a neat storytelling formula, focussing on three drastically different participants for varying lengths of time, their ordeals eventually converging. It makes for a weaving yarn, as you jump between participants, but I never felt lost, which says a lot coming from me.
As for the acting, it’s not quite fair to single out names, but special mention must go to the boat captain, played by Mark Rylance. Rylance’s character manages to carry a steely “I’ve seen it all before” demeanour even when the unthinkable happens and you’re left wondering “but how can you stay calm?”.
Cillian Murphy also turns in a great performance, making you simultaneously abhor yet pity him. And what of the much-noted appearance by Harry Styles? I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out were it not for a fellow reviewer/critic referencing him during the screening. I think this is a good thing (because blending in well etc).
Dunkirk manages to feel epic and nerve-wracking, without resorting to cheap tricks for the most part
It’s a pity that Barry Keoghan never gets to shine, having previously shown his acting chops off in ’71. But then again, the movie isn’t about his character obviously, so it can’t be faulted at all.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t take liberties or leave you going “wuh?” on the rare occasion, with the denouement playing host to a couple. It doesn’t spoil the film at all, but it’s one of the few minor stumbling blocks in an otherwise gripping narrative.
Combine the great acting with the gripping narrative and the many edge-of-your-seat scenes and it’s clear that Dunkirk might just be one of the best war movies ever made. History buffs will also love the sense of foreboding, time and place. After all, we know the timeline of events and who ultimately wins, but it feels like you can see the end of the war from your cinema seat.