Dunkirk: War and terror on an epic scale

Mr Dawson, Peter and George sail the English Channel to help rescue the British army in Dunkirk. Pictures: from Dunkirk



Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Harry Styles 
Rating: ★★★★


You’d expect any movie from acclaimed Hollywood director Christopher Nolan to be an action thriller, or at least a sci-fi blockbuster.

What you may not be expecting is a movie based on a true story. But what Nolan delivers is a harrowing combination of both. 

Set on the beaches of France in mid-1940, the epic war movie Dunkirk recounts the  rescue of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from  horrific circumstances.

About 400,000 Allied armed forces were trapped in France, and desperately needed rescue.  This movie follows the incredible story of Operation Dynamo, the operation that hoped to rescue 50,000, and ended up saving almost  340,000 people.

The plotline follows Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), his father Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), and George (Barry Keoghan), as they set out from Britain on their boat, the Moonstone, to cross the English Channel and reach Dunkirk, where the British Armed Forces are awaiting evacuation.

At the same time, we follow the evacuation by air through the eyes of Farrier (Tom Hardy), an Allied Spitfire pilot protecting the troops from the enemy’s aerial assault. He begins flying in a trio, but then the dogfights begin. At the end, he is the only one left and, running out of fuel, he glides into Dunkirk.

Fionn Whitehead debuts as Tommy, a stretcher-bearer and soldier stranded at Dunkirk.

The story is also told through the eyes of Alex (Harry Styles) and Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), just two out of hundreds of thousands of soldiers stuck at Dunkirk. They are constantly attempting to evacuate, narrowly escaping from one vessel as it is torpedoed in the night.

The plotlines all converge when the Moonstone narrowly saves one of Farrier’s colleagues, pulling him from the Spitfire wreckage before it goes under the waves. Mr Dawson finally steers his way to the beaches of Dunkirk, saving a number of soldiers as their bombed boats sink. 

The constant flipping from day to night, from land to sea, then to air, make the movie somewhat disorienting. In another instance, when a ship is going down, the camera is at the same angle as the deck, showing the water engulfing the ship like a wall from the left.

The soldiers wait for rescue.

Hans Zimmer’s musical score behind the action-packed scenes is incredible. A  clever feature is the way the orchestral pieces blend with other sounds to mimic the constant drone of engines.

There is a particularly brilliant opening scene which features constant two-tone siren-like strings building up to a crescendo, tracking the stretcher-bearers as they race to evacuate  under enemy fire, only to have the ship itself sunk when they board.

This is a perfect start to a compelling movie soundtrack that works harmoniously with the cinematography.

The inclusion of Holywood stars such as Mark Rylance (A Bridge of Spies, 2015), Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie, 2008), and pop singer Harry Styles (One Direction), is almost a side-note to the movie itself.

In any case, Styles is not renowned for his acting. Neither is Fionn Whitehead, who also stars in his first major blockbuster. It is to Nolan’s credit that he does not simply play up to the typical Hollywood movie structure of famous actors to lead roles only.

The movie could have done more to include a proper historical context to the evacuation. Many background details were left out, including Winston Churchill, Hitler, and the Nazis.

It does a lot to portray the realities of war, even off the battlefield. It is also very immersive, both cinematically and musically.

So be immersed in the film, and let the Spitfires, the small boats and the soldiers on the beaches inspire you never to surrender. As Mr Dawson would say: “There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.”