Dunkirk (2017) – Film Review

dunkirk film review soldiers on boat

Director Christopher Nolan
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance
Certificate: 12A

by Roger Crow

Forty years ago, Richard Attenborough and a crew of thousands created A Bridge Too Far. The all-star war epic based on the historic Operation Market Garden campaign in Arnhem was a beautifully crafted drama which examined a key point in the Second World War.

There’s a sense of continuity with the casting of Will Attenborough, grandson of the much-missed Dickie, in Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s own beautifully crafted drama which also examines a key point in the same conflict.

Chances are you may know the story, whether from Dickie and director Leslie Norman’s 1958 namesake movie or assorted documentaries and history lessons: Allied troops trapped in the eponymous country, their backs to the sea, enemy forces closing in, and they have no way home.

So a fleet of pleasure craft and the like set off to rescue them. That’s it. Told as a linear narrative, it could have been another A Bridge Too Far, but inspired by Nolan’s own 19-hour crossing to Dunkirk, the experience which inspired him to make the movie, he applies Inception-style multiple timelines to his most ambitious film.

dunkirk film review soldier

“Pulse pounding”

The casting is superb. Tom Hardy has never given a bad performance in a Nolan film, and as Farrier, an heroic Spitfire pilot, he acts mostly with his eyes. None of those cliched scenes of ripping his oxygen mask off every time he talks so the audience can see his face. (Listen for a Nolan regular over the radio).

Kenneth Branagh adds necessary authority as Bolton, the Commander on the ground waiting for some sort of rescue, while at sea, the peerless Mark Rylance is Mr Dawson, one of the civilian sailors trying to rescue some of the stranded.

And while the stunt casting of Harry Styles could have been as disastrous as sticking Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones, the One Direction veteran does a fine job of convincing the viewer he’s just another British troop trying to stay alive. (I’m guessing the girl and her mum in front of me who talked through the film were more interested in Styles than the stunning story).

Threading the three timelines together is Hans Zimmer’s tense music. No stranger to dealing with the complexities of erratic storytelling thanks to Memento and Inception, here he manages to ramp up the tension with a pulse pounding, nerve jangling score that complements the visuals rather than drowning them out. And while the photography could have gone down the Pearl Harbour-style path of slick visuals and backlit heroes emerging from smoke like rock stars, DoP Hoyte van Hoytema wisely lenses the movie like a documentary.

dunkirk film review pilot

“Shoo-in for major awards”

For the most part Dunkirk could be a silent movie. As great as the script is, it’s the action that speaks louder than words. Nolan’s long been the latter-day Stanley Kubrick, aka the smartest guy in the movie room, and while this could have been as glacial as Full Metal Jacket, there’s a warmth as well as intelligence to his work that bleeds through the screen.

In 2016, Chris Pine’s excellent drama The Finest Hours told a similar story of rescue at sea against seemingly impossible odds. (Cue gag: “Do you want to be in Nolan’s new movie Pine?” “No thanks. I’ve done Kirk.” Boom. Tish.)

While that moving picture seemed to vanish without a trace, Dunkirk is one of those films that deserves the five star reviews. It’s a shoo-in for the major movie awards, and if it doesn’t land a clutch of Baftas next spring I’ll be amazed.

The fact many of the original craft from the Dunkirk campaign recreated moments for the movie is just one of many sucker punch moments. The scene following Branagh looking to the horizon is not only the most moving of 2017 but of any film over the past decade.

dunkirk film review beach

“Glowing tribute”

Though I don’t see it in IMAX, the director’s preferred medium, there’s a strong chance I’ll amend that on a second look. It’s a film that deserves multiple viewings and will no doubt be doing the rounds at festivals for years to come.

One of Dunkirk’s greatest achievements is not just that it treats the audience with respect but that in an age when many feel embarrassed to be British, here’s a film that makes me proud and at the same time is a glowing tribute to the countless souls who risked everything to save their comrades.

An outstanding film about selflessness for the selfie generation.


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