It was a pivotal moment in history when the United Kingdom was able to turn what looked like a massive defeat in the beaches of Dunkirk into a huge moral victory for its people.
And the movie based on that event may prove a pivotal moment its in director, Chris Nolan's career. Not to say that the much acclaimed film maker is currently in dire straits, which obviously he is not. But his latest outing Dunkirk may be his masterpiece on top of all the success he has built all over the years.
It is also a very unique piece of film making compared to most World War II epics out there. It starts out quietly, without a piece of dialogue. And yet the eerie silence and lack of a resounding soundtrack adds to the tension of the moment. Newcomer, Fionn Whitehead who is the closest thing we have to a main character in this ensemble piece, is able to show the nuance of his character with each movement.
There is no backstory, flashback or exposition for anyone in this film, but you can feel all they have lived behind their eyes. It is a testament to how good each actor in this film is, and how Nolan is able to bring that out with a camera shot. There is in fact a beautiful moment in the movie, where Kenneth Branagh's, Commander Bolton first glimpses the small civilian vessels coming in on the horizon to rescue the men on the beach. The soldiers of course cheer at the liberation, the camera pans out a sweeping shot, but steadies in on Bolton's face. The officer is one of the few people in the beach who knew that a rescue may not happen, and his steady face, and his eyes glistening fully encapsulated the moment for the audience within a few seconds.
Each actor was able to bring in something to this film. Academy award winner Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, the captain of a pleasure vessel with his son, Peter and deckhand, George make for a compelling trio to show the civilian side of the rescue. The pilots, Tom Hardy's, Farrier and Jack Lowden's, Collins were able to show the tension with only their voices despite being behind masks for most of their on-screen time. Harry Styles was impressive for his acting debut, through the film you see him only as a regular lad trying to survive amidst all this chaos.
It is also worth noting that through the entire film you never really get to see the enemy. Even at the very end they are nothing more than silhouettes in the horizon or shadows moving in the side. For a World War II film, the bombs, explosions and gun shots are noticeably rare. These things jump out suddenly, amidst the quiet, which gives the film the feel of a thriller.
The different timelines in which the different points of view play out is also a master stroke. The entire fighter plane sequence takes place within a shorter time period so they see things that happen in advance ahead of everyone's story. While in contrast the story of the soldiers in the beach takes place in a week's span. There is clues on what may happen, and it leaves you guessing.
It is also brilliantly refreshing how it keeps away from the bigger picture. It is intensely focused on the "now" and what is happening with the men on screen. Despite beautiful sweeping panoramic shots, everything stays grounded and at eye level. When watching, you don't care about the politics, or the overall strategy or the enemy, you are just fully invested in the men's lives. Which brings us much closer to the experience of the common soldier.
The movie also speaks volumes in the end, when one of the soldier who survived, which i shall not name so as not to spoil it for you, answers a "Good on you Lad" with "All we did is survive" showing how grey the concert of war is. In the end they were all hailed as heroes, and yet they are reluctant to take on the mantle. You just get a human perspective, they are just simply happy to make it through.
Not to say that there is a lack of heroic moments in this film, because there are. What is interesting is that the acts of valiance are understated, there is no fanfare, tears, shouts explosions, or a huge dollop of patriotism, which I have to say is annoyingly common in films of this genre. The landing of the spitfire for instance which ended the movie was simple, beautiful and poetic, it also didn't feel tragic at all given the circumstance.
Overall, this is what the film is. Chris Nolan was able to deliver a subtle yet riveting war movie in Dunkirk, a true masterpiece that may prove to be a classic in the future.
Dunkirk is currently showing in cinemas worldwide.