IF, like me, you are a war film fan, then Dunkirk could not come soon enough this year. However, be prepared to watch it through different eyes.
A soldier takes off his combat helmet and throws it down onto the sand. He does the same with his rifle as he walks toward the leaden thrash of the English Channel and plunges head first into it.
For a few eye-filling frames, he encapsulates the sense of abject hopelessness. Just one of 400,000 men, seemingly stranded on a northern French beach, the breath of the enemy on their nape feeling as achingly close as the White Cliffs of Dover and yet, home remains unreachable. It is May 1940. This is Dunkirk.
Resist the temptation to sit this film alongside the likes of Saving Private Ryan (as excellent as that was) et al because you will not get gore and you will not get the character depth we might be used to. The lack of either does not diminish the power, nor the effect.
The only red stuff you will see is the strawberry jam-laden bread being handed around by nurses to the ravenous throng aboard a Navy rescue ship, washed down with lashings of tea. This is right before they are washed out to sea following a torpedo strike. Just when they think they are safe and Blighty-bound, the hellishness proves unrelenting.
And the lack of backstory to me points to the fact those lives, with all their richness and vibrancy and colour were so easily snuffed. Gone in an instant. Those soldiers meeting their band of brothers on the shifting sands to wait for a miracle would have barely had the energy or the inclination for small talk.
Commander Exposition, as he has been termed (Kenneth Branagh), fills us in on the bigger picture while directing the evacuation from the salt-drenched pier.
Director Christopher Nolan is fascinated with time – three of his other masterpieces being Memento, Inception and Interstellar – and he again plays with it here, splicing and weaving a trio of elements moving at varying speeds before convergence and an overtaking of the other, mirroring the confusion and the chaos of the subject matter.
We get a week in the life of sore-knuckled soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a day with plucky pleasure cruiser captain Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his tank-topped young crew and an hour with Tom Hardy (steady), who had the stoic Spitfire pilot character Farrier written especially for him by Nolan. Hardy it seems is very skilled at conveying much with his eyes and brows, the rest of his (some would say beautiful) visage oft covered, be it by say big beard or brutal Bane mask. The latter Nolan did in The Dark Knight Rises. This time, it is with an oxygen supply.
It is in the air that you are overwhelmed visually in this film. These are real Spitfires on real sorties above the 21-mile stretch between the UK and France.
Across dramatic expanses of sky, we see arguably the greatest, most agile, most chest-rattling aircraft ever created put through its paces. You are bombarded with dynamism, with heroism. Nolan’s stroke of genius is showing with no more explanation than a broken fuel gauge and a piece of chalk that the pilot’s decision to then commit is fate-sealing (Sir Michael Caine is the secret cameo, giving King’s English orders into the cockpits).
The non-linear presentation of Dunkirk gives Farrier’s role in the rescue effort the same weight as the other components, serving to right the wrong that the RAF was widely criticised by the army on the beach for not doing enough in their greatest hour of need.
All the while, composer Hans Zimmer’s score provides a foreboding throb and tick to proceedings; an adrenaline-driven heartbeat, a well-wound pocket watch reminding that time and tide wait for no man.
I saw an interview with One Direction’s Harry Styles, who makes his spume-splattered acting debut in this film. He said he did not know what he was doing – but then nor did those soldiers.
You see raw human reaction in this – as the screaming Stukas pick off ‘the fish in a barrel’, the agonising waiting punctuated with being the subject of target practice or the palpable relief as the flotilla of little ships sail into view to achieve the unimaginable. Our army could not get home so home came and got them. A number of original vessels recreated the journey for the filming.
This movie was specifically made for viewing on an IMAX screen. Do it if you can. The neck prickle of the heavy army-issue coats, the fluttering propaganda flyers, the light on the water. If you are lucky, you will hear the projector click furiously as the five and a bit miles of real film thunder through the mechanism with the resulting definition being something we are not used to at the cinema these days – a sensory feast.
Churchill called Dunkirk a colossal military disaster and yet there is victory in the survival. I left the cinema feeling unworthy of that generation’s experiences, its ability to endure, its willingness to sacrifice. It is an intense history lesson and a tribute to a turning point in the modern world in one.