It might well be a surprise that the story of what happened at Dunkirk early in the Second World War has never been brought to the big screen. Some of that might have to do with the fact that Americans weren't involved- this was a year and a half before Pearl Harbor, after all. And yet that didn't stop the film Battle Of Britain from coming out back in 1969 to great acclaim. Now that's been rectified by director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, The Prestige) in a new feature film that has just been released to theatres, telling a harrowing war tale of the survival and evacuation of thousands of men in the face of oncoming danger.
The film sticks with the facts of what happened. With the collapse of the French army in 1940 and the fall of other European countries to the Nazi blitzkrieg, Allied soldiers from Britain, Canada, France, Belgium, and hold outs from other occupied countries find themselves running out of space for retreat. They are trapped along the French coast at Dunkirk, and between May 26th and June 4th, with German forces pressing in, the coastal beaches and town become a possible last stand for an army of hundreds of thousands of men, and a miracle because of what transpires.
Aside from directing the film, Nolan wrote the screenplay, with roots that date back a quarter century during a crossing of the English Channel with his wife Emma Thomas, who produced the film with him. He set the idea aside until he had experience directing big action films, but envisioned telling a war story from three points of view- land, sea, and air. The story is not conventional fodder for Hollywood- no involvement of Americans, and what happened was a retreat, not a victory- though it can be said that the saving of an entire army from the shores of France proved to come back to haunt the Germans when many of those men returned during the D-Day operations four years later.
The story is told from the point of view of those involved- we don’t see politicians or generals in a war room back across the Channel; in fact, we get perspective views from the commanders down to the privates all stuck together on the beach. It’s interesting that Nolan’s story keeps the Germans at a distance- we don’t really see German soldiers up close, but feel their presence as a looming threat. Instead we get the personal point of view of mostly young men, inexperienced boys, really, facing the dread of possible annihilation. Some are shaken by it, others come into their own. We see the bravery and resolve of civilian sailors crossing the Channel straight into danger. The characters are largely composites as to historical personalities, representing in a general sense those men who were at Dunkirk. The film’s narrative does come across as authentic- those of us familiar with the story of the evacuation can see that Nolan’s very careful about keeping to the timeline.
And it turns out that Nolan was wise to decide to leave this film until he was well established. As a director, he’s taken on the intimate and personal in films like Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige, while establishing himself in larger epic films with his work on the three Batman films he did with Christian Bale, or the meta-scale of films like Inception or Interstellar. Nolan has established himself as a compelling storyteller, capable of character studies and powerful action, and the result is a war film that rates as one of the greats of the genre, telling a story that deserves to be told on the big screen.
Nolan and his crew worked extensively on location, not only on the beach at Dunkirk where it happened, but other spots in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, with some work done in the United States for the interiors of a sinking ship. A French destroyer was even used, kitted out like other warships to look more like a throwback to the time. Period planes were brought into the production, along with model work- Nolan chose not to rely on computer generated effects.
From the director’s point of view, Nolan and his camera team have great instincts in telling a war film. Some of that comes from previous experience- take for example, The Dark Knight Rises, which has the tone of a war film in many ways. But it shows itself in the ferocity of combat that comes across on the screen, or the harrowing, claustrophobic feel of sequences throughout the film. It shows itself in the characters, some of whom are shaken or broken by what they’re going through, others who push on through. War is hell, and Nolan gives the audience the chaos, horror, and tension of it throughout the film.
In preparing for the film, Nolan spent time with some of the surviving veterans of Dunkirk, hearing their stories, and some of the things that were impressed upon him was how young they all were at the time. The director chose to go with young actors, most of them unknown, for the rank and file members of the cast, and it was a wise decision. With the exception of one of them (Harry Styles, the singer, who at least doesn’t humiliate himself as a first time actor), who’s famous in a completely different entertainment genre, most of the younger cast members are not known to the public at large. Going for the unknown turns out to be the right call- these young actors like Tom Glynn-Carney or Jack Lowden allow the audience to get to know their characters on their own terms.
That’s not to say there aren’t well known actors involved. Cillian Murphy, who has worked with Nolan on several films- including his memorable take as the Scarecrow in the Batman films- is particularly poignant in his performance as a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. James D’Arcy, who appeared in Agent Carter as Edwin Jarvis, and in the British series Broadchurch, appears as a British colonel, preoccupied with the fate of those men under his command. Mark Rylance, who recently won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Bridge Of Spies, appears as Mr. Dawson, an experienced civilian sailor who takes his boat into peril and faces it with steadiness and quiet courage.
Tom Hardy gets a good deal to do as Farrier, a pilot with the Royal Air Force whose point of view we get into from action in the air as the RAF duels with Luftwaffe pilots. The actor worked with Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises for his memorable take as Bane, and here his character is calm, sympathetic, and methodical.
Kenneth Branagh, the great Shakespearean actor of stage and screen, gets a terrific part as Bolton, the senior commander on the beach. Like his men and those of the other Allied forces finding themselves in peril, Bolton shares the danger. He worries about what’s to come, hopes for rescue, and keeps calm and measured in how he handles his men. Branagh gives the character stoicism and resolve.
Nolan’s main point of view character is, until now, an unknown actor. Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy, a British private, one of thousands of his kind. The young actor has some previous experience in Britain, but not a lot, and here gets a role that makes a serious impression. He embodies the young man who went off to war against the greatest evil human beings have ever come up with. Men like him might not have known what they were quite getting into, but rose to the occasion, despite what fear they might have felt. Whitehead becomes our eyes and ears, and the actor conveys the experiences and perspective of a soldier facing great peril in just the right way.
Dunkirk does not rely on manipulating drama to tug at the heart strings. Yes, it can be moving at times, but never in a way that feels forced. Instead it conveys the tension and suspense of war, the steady sense of unshakable fortitude, the danger of the situation, and the immediacy of the soldier’s point of view. In telling the story of an evacuation and retreat, Nolan gives us a film that sticks with the events as they happened, a harrowing war film that might well stand as one of the best of its genre... and it's the best film of the year.