In May 1940, 400,000 allied soldiers found themselves stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, penned in by German troops and sitting ducks for attacks from the Luftwaffe. What followed was a huge evacuation carried out not only by the navy, but also civilian and merchant boats that crossed the English Channel in their hundreds. The scale of the rescue mission was immense, with Winston Churchill describing the stranding of so many allied troops as a “colossal military disaster”.
Christopher Nolan’s breathtaking version of the events focuses in on just a handful of soldiers who either found themselves on the beaches or who were part of the rescue operation. This is what sets Dunkirk apart from other war films; there are no backstories to these few men, no shots of families at home waiting for news of their fate – just days filled with bleakness and a grim determination to survive. It’s a given that every man on the beaches, out on the sea, or in the sky had a family and a home that he was desperate to get back to, and Nolan avoids wasting any time by spelling this out. Instead, the brisk 106 minutes are relentlessly nerve-wracking in their depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Down on the beach we have two groups: a few young soldiers who are put through several attacks while trying to get off of the beach, and the naval officers who are left to stare out to sea and simply wait for help to arrive. Dialogue is sparse, but the cast are faultless in their portrayal of how soul-destroying and fatigue-inducing the battle to escape was. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead leads the troop of young soldiers and plays the perfect balancing act of naivety and incredible bravery. Alongside Whitehead features One Direction’s Harry Styles, an addition to the cast that caused a fair bit of doubt when first announced, but actually played out incredibly well, with Styles managing to hold his own among a cavalcade of far more experienced actors.
Kenneth Branagh‘s Commander Bolton is the man tasked with putting on a brave face and overseeing the escape of hundreds of thousands of men. It’s stiff upper lip all the way with this performance, but one that Branagh was truly born to do. Dunkirk is packed full of wonderfully old-fashioned British performances, something that Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden also embrace in their roles as RAF pilots. Nolan carries out his usual trick of covering up as much of Hardy’s face as possible, but he seems to just flourish under these circumstances.
Often shot from the pilots’ viewpoint, the action up in the air provides some of the most simply awe-inspiring moments in the film, making you crane your neck to try and see where that other plane disappeared to, or holding your breath when it suddenly appears once again. The drone of the planes and the sound of the ammunition never let up. Out on the sea, Mark Rylance (fully equipped with the kindest eyes in cinema), goes across the channel in his little boat on a rescue mission. If you want to have a dose of patriotism, the fearlessness of his character and the two young men on board will make your heart swell with pride.
Nolan’s choice to jump between the different pieces of action, going back and forth in time across the space of a couple of days, gives Dunkirk the feel of a real epic. Events unfold in front of your eyes, but then we jump back in time and see it all again from an entirely different viewpoint. Men make good their escape over and over; sometimes they’re rescued, and sometimes they’re lost. We see men scrambling towards rescue boats, drifting helplessly in the channel, but only see them board their doomed vessel later on. It’s chaotic, it’s unpredictable, and it’s the perfect depiction of the nature of war.
A real attack on the senses, the most overwhelming and affecting aspect of Dunkirk is the score and sound design. Hans Zimmer is at the helm of the unsettling score that drones and drags you through the action. A ticking watch begins as soon as the first shots are fired, and only stops when Tommy (Whitehead) falls asleep after boarding a train home in England. Bullets fly off shrapnel with such force that upon leaving the cinema you suddenly find yourself with mild tinnitus. The hum of the Luftwaffe slowly but surely makes its way towards the beaches. It’s unrelenting, exhausting, and hard to get out of your mind for some time after.
A film that forces adrenaline through your veins, that makes you hold your breath, and leaves you with ears ringing – Dunkirk is the most spectacular war film since Saving Private Ryan. An absorbing and unforgiving 106 minutes, schmaltz and romanticism is left behind and replaced with bravery and desperation. This is one to be watched many, many times over.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 5…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
9th – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
8th – TONI ERDMANN
7th – THE HANDMAIDEN
6th – LA LA LAND
5th – DUNKIRK
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2017 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2017!