If there’s a must-see film for wargamers this year, then that film has to be Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Dunkirk. I’ve seen it twice now, and am seriously considering a third viewing this weekend!
Let’s start by getting the elephant in the room out of the way. The film covers only the events around the evacuation from the beaches: it makes only passing reference to the ‘collapsing the pocket’ campaign that allowed Operation Dynamo to take place. Now whilst this is disappointing, it is what it is, and shouldn’t stop anyone going to see the film just because they are a bit piqued that their favourite bit of WW2 military history isn’t covered!
What the film does do is look at the events between 26th May and 4th June from three different perspectives and on three different time lines. Yes: three different timelines. As with his previous works Inception and Interstellar, Nolan twists and loops the threads of his story around the fourth dimension, only bringing it all together in the final reel.
So what does that mean? It means that you watch the same events from three points of view (land, sea and air) on three different timelines (a week, a day, an hour respectively). So early on in Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot’s hour-long timeline and therefore the film you see him flying over the Moonstone, Mark Rylance’s ‘small boat’…but much later in the film, at the equivalent point in Rylance’s day-long timeline, you see Rylance watching Hardy’s Spitfire flying over his boat.
Confused? You won’t be. Believe it or not, it all makes perfect sense as you’re watching the film and works brilliantly as a dramatic device: what you think you’re seeing in the first view of an event, for example, might not match what is actually happening, with what is actually happening only becoming obvious at the later, different perspective, viewing.
The second “big tick” of the film is its cinematography. See it on the biggest screen possible. The sheer vista and scope of what you’re watching is incredible. The various palettes used for the land, sea and air elements are beautiful. In particular, the soaring yet somehow shakily claustrophobic aerial battle scenes are worth the price of the ticket alone.
Although the storyline is simple, the elements above make the film incredibly tense to watch, particularly as, on first watching, you don’t know who is going to make it and who isn’t. This is war, after all, and lots of people die. Add to this Hans Zimmer’s “ticking clock” score (apparently based on the sound of the director’s watch) and you will be on the edge of your seat throughout. I’m glad the film is Nolan’s shortest yet: much more and I would have needed evacuation myself!
One quick note for parents: this isn’t a gore fest, quite the opposite. I took my ten year old daughter to see it (she was the youngest in the, packed, cinema by far…and absolutely loved it) without worrying that she might be traumatised by Private Ryan-like shots of intestines and brains everywhere. Yes, as I said, lots of people die, but the director doesn’t need to use buckets of Kensington Gore to dial up the tension.
One quick note for the rivet-counters: there’s nothing too upsetting for you lot either. I know some of the ships are modern rather than contemporary; I know Tom Hardy’s Spitfire seems to have more than sixteen seconds of ammo (I didn’t time it, but it seemed like more); I even spotted a soldier in boots without hobnails…but overall it’s a pretty good effort to recreate the event. Could the beach have had a lot more detritus on it to match the contemporary photographs? Yes, of course it could…but I was happy to sacrifice a few burnt out lorries for the sense of isolation and desolation engendered by their absence.
Finally, let’s talk about the acting. One word: superb. Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard are great as the principal protagonists of the land segment, ably supported by Kenneth Branagh’s pseudo-Ramsey and an unexpectedly good Harry Stiles. Mark Rylance lives up to each and every one of his many, many awards for theatre-work as Mr. Dawson, the master of the small-boat Moonstone, ably supported by Cillian Murphy named only as “Shivering Soldier”. Last, and absolutely by no means least, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden excel as the fighter pilots: Tom Hardy doing some superb acting with only his eyes and eyebrows as he wears a pilot’s mask for most of his scenes.
In conclusion, go and see Dunkirk now, and go and see it on the big screen rather than waiting for the DVD. It is a truly brilliant work from a director at the top of his game.