Dunkirk movie cast: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles
Dunkirk movie director: Christopher Nolan
Dunkirk star rating: 4.5 stars
Dunkirk begins by telling you in three short lines what happened in this little-known story about World War II. Soon after the War had started, the British and French troops were trapped in this French sea town as the Germans circled in. The British and French troops waited “for deliverance”. “For a miracle”.
Then, nothing in this taut, tense, relentless film, plays like a miracle, or feels like deliverance. War seldom does, and Christopher Nolan, the man who has made superheroes darker, dreams loopier and space vaster, isn’t letting you forget that. There are few heroes in Dunkirk, and no battles. The actual act of heroism by the men and women who rushed in with their small boats from across the English Channel to rescue the forces is almost a cipher, though it is this that led to this story be known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.
No, Nolan is telling you about defeat, the blood, sweat and tears of it; how it settles into your bones, sets in your face, moves your clawing fingers, hardens your scared heart. He is telling it from the seas, skies and land, and if you are catching it in IMAX, there is just no looking away, from any angle as Nolan goes over, under, in and out, about the men.
At the end of Dunkirk’s 116-minute length – the short duration for a war, Nolan film a welcome departure – you are as tired, feel as futile as the men tumbling off and into boats. The Hans Zimmer music, led by the violin (aptly described by someone as “the most anxious of instruments”), is as urgent, as ominous, as edgy.
The writer-director, who loves playing with time, again tells the story of that week in a non-linear sequence. It’s an unnecessary tool here, but it allows him to simultaneously focus on three things that were happening in that May-June 1940 rescue effort, as the world still nudged itself awake to Hitler’s possibilities. There are the soldiers in Dunkirk, pushed to a narrow stretch of beach half covered in sea foam; there is the Royal Air Force told to largely stay away; and there are the men in small boats called for help by the desperate British government as bigger ships couldn’t pick up the men from the beach.
Nolan has got great actors essaying each of those roles. On the beach (the chapter dubbed ‘Mole’), but for the theatre-ly Kenneth Branagh, the roles of two lost, frightened and lonely soldiers are played by the virtually unknown Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard. The desperation with which they grab a stretcher with a dying soldier and run to a medical ship, in a chance to get off the beach, is heartbreaking. The plight of the men who knew death was so near, nearer than the home that lay just 30 miles away — “close enough to almost see it” – is told through largely these two men, who remain virtually wordless, and nameless. And later by Harry Styles.
The air chapter has Tom Hardy and two other pilots fending off the German bombers, who are targeting any big ship trying to make it to the beach. Hardy is covered in his mask almost all through the film, but his eyes and those firm fingers tell a story.
On the sea, the third chapter, we meet Mark Rylance (having quite a run these days), his son and his deck hand, who are responding to the British government’s call to help and rushing off to Dunkirk in their yacht. It’s here that Nolan allows himself some talk, about fighting, about defeat, about heroism, about “old men who dictate wars” and “send young children to fight them”. And about airplanes, a lot of them. It’s not always convincing.
Dunkirk does hold no promise of heroes you can cheer or mourn for, or of people whom we know beyond what they did that day. There are no photos tucked in wallets, no letters to post, no messages to deliver. Death comes quickly, without ceremony; boats sink fast, with just a whoosh as warning; and planes go down slowly, like a bird in agony. But the faces you will remember, the faces of men holding their toast and jam, staring at death, and looking uncomprehendingly at hope.
It’s after Dunkirk that Winston Churchill gave his famous speech about “fighting them on the beaches…”, “never surrendering”, and hoping for the New World to come to the rescue of the Old. As desperate men in boats again lap against Europe’s shores, that prayer sounds as bleak as it did that day.