The Second World War (1939 – 1945) was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history but it was also one of the most fascinating. The narrative of the war that dragged on for six gruelling years was full of many twists and turns with victory and defeat often in the balance. Both Germany and Japan were in the ascendancy in their respective wars in Europe and Asia in the early years of World War II but gradually the tide turned against both of them and it was the Allies that would ultimately emerge victorious, though it would come at a heavy cost for all countries involved. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk looks at one of the key moments in the war in Europe from early on, one focusing on what was essentially a defeat but felt more like a victory.
Set in 1940, Dunkirk explores the evacuation of British and French troops from France. Their offensives against the relentlessGerman army have faltered and it’s now backs to the wall territory. The Allies have retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk where thousands of wounded and weary soldiers look to the horizon and hope to make it to England. Dunkirk examines this pivotal point in the war from different perspectives. On the beaches we have Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private, who desperately searches for a way onto one of the few ships bound for home as there are not enough for everyone. In the air, we have Spitfire pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy), patrolling the English Channel and trying to protect vessels from being sunk by German fighter planes. At sea, we have Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian whose ship has been requisitioned to help rescue the stranded soldiers at Dunkirk but he has to get there first. Hundreds of thousands of men await rescue but can they be brought back or will they be captured or even killed?
Christopher Nolan’s war film dispenses with a great deal of dialogue, concentrating instead on the mood and atmosphere of the heroic evacuation at Dunkirk. The soldiers depicted here are bruised, bloodied and beaten by the war, seemingly without hope. Dialogue isn’t really necessary to convey the pain, suffering and desperation of the soldiers. Due to the depiction of this struggle from different angles, the film jumps around a lot and we therefore don’t form a strong connection with any one character. Apparently Harry Styles from One Direction was there but I didn’t even notice. Sorry Harry! That said, my complete unfamiliarity with One Direction was probably to blame there. In terms of the storylines, I found Dawson’s perilous journey across the Channel, coupled with Farrier’s airborne struggle to be the film’s highlights. Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy put in good performances, as does Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton who oversees the efforts to save as many soldiers as possible. If you are familiar with this period of history you’ll know what the outcome of Dunkirk was but it’s not the result that is the vital thing here but how it was achieved. I wasn’t previously aware that civilian ships were involved in the operation for instance so it was good to learn something new along the way. In the end, Nolan offers a good account of this moment in the Second World War, but the lack of character study may not be to everyone’s tastes.
Verdict: A visually impressive and gritty account of Dunkirk but the lack of character depth may divide audiences.