by Lachlan Anderson
Rated M. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
On May 26, 1940 nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers, mostly British, found themselves on a beach in Dunkirk, Northern France with the German army surrounding them at all sides. Over the next nine days, about three-quarters of that number would be rescued from the jaws of death in what Winston Churchill later called a “miracle”.
In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan places us right in the middle of the rescue attempt, in three intertwined stories. We follow soldiers on the beach hoping for rescue; pilots fighting in the air to stop the bombing of rescue ships; and the ships, most of them civilian, sent from England across the Channel to ferry soldiers back home. Despite the historical setting, the characters themselves are fictionalised and their stories play out alongside one another, some stretching days, and another only an hour.
For the most part we follow Fionn Whitehead’s young soldier Tommy as he arrives at the beach and spends days ducking from bombs, jumping off capsized ships and desperately trying to make it back home alive. His story is intercut with Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, who sails his boat to help the rescue, and Tom Hardy as an RAF pilot fighting off enemy planes.
Nolan is known for championing film as an experience and in Dunkirk he invites the audience to experience a small part of what it was like for the soldiers. The sound of planes, bombs and bullets are all ratcheted up to piercing levels. Hans Zimmer’s score is relentless and sinister; easily his best music in years, possibly since Inception. For its relatively short runtime of 106 minutes he gives the audience little chance to breathe as he builds to a stunning crescendo of a climax. It is by some means a heroic tale of war, but it is incredibly gripping.
The characters portrayed on screen may be imaginations of Nolan’s careful research but they represent a very real situation, one in which thousands of men were forced to surrender themselves to hope. Hope for deliverance. We feel the enemy’s presence throughout the whole film yet rarely see them. When we do, it’s their planes.
But the oppressiveness is tangible for the viewer. These are men caged in and desperate for freedom. Dunkirk reminds us of the very real spiritual battle ongoing right now with an unseen enemy who can inflict great damage. And like the soldiers we’re helpless. But in Jesus, our hope for rescue is very sure and we can take refuge in the fact that those who trust in Jesus won’t be stuck on a spiritual beach.
The Verdict: An unrelenting war-thriller that bucks the Hollywood trend of American heroism to explore one of the greatest military disasters ever. Nolan takes the audience on a tension rollercoaster and immerses them in the realities of war and desperation. But at its heart Dunkirk is also a story of hope, perseverance and salvation. The Dark Knight has been replaced; this is Nolan’s best yet. 5/5
Dunkirk is in cinemas now.