Every blue moon, you find a connection between director and subject that is nothing short of alchemical. Christopher Nolan’s career has looped from the best Batman, The Dark Knight (2008), to the wank of Inception (2010), with the films in between being, if nothing else, visually stunning.
Dealing here with a comparatively recent historical event, Nolan, who wrote the screenplay, has tempered his penchant for showiness, his tendency to allow style to take precedence over content (it is the CGI effect), with a laser-like focus on the big picture. And the outcome is superb. Routed by the Nazis in 1940, 400,000 British and Allied troops were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk (France). Their annihilation was imminent. That most of them were saved by a flotilla of privately owned fishing vessels, pleasure craft and boats of all shapes and sizes was one of the most stirring and, in the long run, influential episodes of WWII. Few cinema-goers would get more bored with battle scenes than I do, but Nolan has shot some incredibly gripping, white-knuckle, aerial combat sequences in the dogfights that a British pilot (Tom Hardy) engages in with the German planes that are harrying the Allies’ retreat. Likewise the chaos and terror of unsheltered men being bombed by a merciless enemy is keenly felt.
A through-line is provided by the private whose fate is tracked from street-fighting in Dunkirk to his safe arrival by train at Woking, while Kenneth Branagh plays the unflinching ‘John Bull’ commander whose duty will always come first.
Music and sound design – the screaming Messerschmitts! – is awesome, as is the sense of triumph created by Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera, which captures the epic and the humane. To his credit, Nolan does not indulge in a gore-fest, but neither does he go in for schmaltziness or glorifying war in any way – perhaps that’s why when Branagh sees the boats sailing from England to save the boys, there is not a dry eye in the house. One of the year’s best.