Dunkirk – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles
The original purpose of Operation Dynamo was to attempt to rescue approximately 30,000 British troops stranded in Northern France. What happened in fact was the evacuation of 198,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force and 140,000 Belgian and French troops, all of whom were encircled by the Germans, from the beaches at Dunkirk between 26th May and 4th June 1940. It is a tale well worth the retelling. It involved not only air cover provided by the RAF but also a large number of naval vessels. But given the large volume of troops huddled on the beaches and the lack of adequate and sufficient harbour facilities, a motley flotilla of civilian leisure and fishing craft were needed in order to take a large volume of men from the beach itself. These essential craft were to be provided by the sea faring folk who lived and worked along the English south coast. They came together as a remarkable collaboration between the various armed forces of the United Kingdom and its civilian population as they set out to rescue “their” soldiers and a good hunk of allied soldiers as well.
Because the entire operation was one of co-operation on a grand scale, Christopher Nolan has wisely chosen not to create an overriding hero. Nor has he touched the British planning involved in Operation Dynamo, nor the reasons why the Germans appeared to prevaricate given their advantage. However, nearly all those who do appear, even if but briefly, by their presence are acting heroically; there is the father, a Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylands), whose son, a fighter pilot, has already been killed but he steers his small craft “The Moonstone” with his other son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a friend into the channel; an RAF pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden), who provides air cover but whose fuel tank is running low; a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) rescued by the Moonstone, from an upturned boat, who is in a state of shell shock; a naval commander (Kenneth Branagh) who provides assurance and authority from the chaotic Dunkirk jetty; and there are many others all with a small but heroic role to play. And of course there is the overall mass of stranded soldiers which include Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles of One Direction fame) who are surrounded by dangers on every side, bewildered and fearful in the resounding mayhem, whose heroism lies in remaining orderly as their rescue is being secured by all these other individual acts.
The cinematography includes magnificent shots of the domestic streets of Dunkirk, the desolate fish restaurants all shuttered up along the beach front, the long straggling lines of troops as they wait on the beach and in sharp contrast the most magnificent aerial dog fights. Throughout the tension ensures that the audience is on edge. Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum and it often comes in short staccato bursts which is not always easy to understand. But the niceties of conversation are not relevant when all are involved in a battle for survival and rescue. Nolan also keeps the female involvement to a minimum in the form of hard-working, cheerful nurses. There is not any time for romance. It is all about the work needed to be done in a very small window of opportunity.
There is a musical score (Hans Zimmer) which at all times complements the action on the screen but comes particularly poignant when it takes on some Elgarian strains as “mission accomplished” comes into view. These chords provide the sense of a return to port and with Churchill’s words about “fighting on the beaches” the retreat of this vanquished army is no victory but a clarion call to regroup for the long, hard fight which lay ahead.
The events which are described are epic in scale but in order to keep the entire tense, Nolan has made almost everything intimate and human in scale. He proclaims the various individual acts of selflessness and courage that made Operation Dynamo an event of enormous historical importance. Nolan has created a magnificent film which honours all those involved in this hard to believe enterprise.