Synopsis: Dramatization of the 1940, World War II evacuation of Dunkirk, France. Over 300,000 United Kingdom and Allied troops were rescued.
Director and screenwriter Christopher Nolan’s ambitious Dunkirk recounts the historic battle and rescue wherein UK, French and Allied infantry had been pushed back by German forces through France and practically into the English Channel at Dunkirk/ Dunkerque. Oh, those spoilsport Germans. If it wasn’t for their incorrigible invasion tendencies, Europe could’ve relaxed and enjoyed the twentieth century. SMDH. Anyhow, the movie’s trailers alone were so intense and epic that I thought I might faint during the actual movie. But I knew that –like the soldiers of yore– I would have to be brave and face the music.
Queuing up for my ticket, huddling in the theater, waiting for the screen action to begin… would the film arise to its promise? Let me tell you now: it’s great. The facts are accurate, but Nolan’s screenplay imagines the soldiers and civilians that we meet. Nolan has said that he considers Dunkirk more a survival movie than a war movie. Yes, it’s exhausting with all of the troops’ desperate running and swimming, but don’t you dare duck out to the concession stand. Those heroic chaps couldn’t, so show a little respect for them and stay seated.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and Germany’s subsequent push westward across Europe brought England into the war and onto European soil. Men–from nearly boys to nearly seniors– were called to arms for king and country. The soldiers went to war under the direction of their prime minister.
Nearly eighty years later, British men were again called to arms, returning to the evacuation of Dunkirk. The British actors went to film under the direction of Christopher Nolan.
Nolan has amassed talent spanning generations. The cast encompasses the great thespian knights, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Mark Rylance — both having richly served British culture with their performances of Shakespeare. Nolan stalwarts Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy astound. James D’Arcy as a colonel who is the right hand
man to Branagh’s Commander Bolton and Jack Lowden as an RAF pilot fill-out the ranks with excellence. And young recruits Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan serve with honour. Harry Styles too. Speaking of which, Christopher Nolan claims that he didn’t know that Harry Styles was so popular, but I think he cast Harry after plenty of late nights watching One Direction music videos.
After pulling together his illustrious cast, Nolan’s work had just begun. He had to bring all of his men, materiel and craft services across the Channel, navigating all manner of British and European Union regulations. And his battle plan is not so straightforward. After all, this is the screenwriter and director of the time-tripping Memento. There are three interlocking stories of men at sea, in the air and on the mole. The last one confused me because I didn’t know how a fuzzy little mammal or a skin blotch could have any role in the evacuation. But apparently “mole” also means a jetty of stone that can act as a breakwater and pier. The men’s lives hang in the balance as each battle area plays out chronologically, but intercutting each other.
At Sea… Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson sails with teen son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend, George (Barry Keoghan) from Dorset, England eastward to France. Along the way they rescue a traumatized officer (Cillian Murphy), the sole survivor of a U-boat attack. Mr. Dawson understands the soldier’s shock and fear, but the boys are flummoxed. The officer shouts at Mr. Dawson that they cannot go back or they’ll be killed. And then –horror of horrors– he knocks away the hot tea that he’s offered. What an unpatriotic act. The bastard ruins the brisk jaunt across the Channel that could have been full of fellowship.
In the Air: Tom Hardy gamely rises to the occasion as Farrier, an ace RAF pilot. I was disappointed when he covered his pillowy lips with a flight mask, but his eyes tell the story of his courage. He is joined by Collins (Jack Lowden), the two seemingly the only British pilots involved in the battle. In spite of forever dodging and chasing German planes, they are both unflappable. I prayed that they would survive against the formidable odds of two against hundreds. And I prayed that they would fling off their masks so that we could gaze upon their handsome faces.
The Land aka the Mole: The director has his work cut out for him with such raw acting recruits — they look barely old enough to drive. This is Fionn Whitehead’s first film and he has to convey all of the emotion and physicality of a young man surviving against the odds. His character, Tommy, careers from one desperate circumstance to another. One of his unimaginable plights is running into Harry Styles of One Direction. When we see Harry desperate to get from shore to ship, we can’t help but imagine he is valiantly trying to get to a pop performance at the O2 in London.
Roving among the stranded troops, two officers are highlighted: Branagh as a commander and D’Arcy as a colonel. The latter keeps a stiff upper lip while delivering sobering reports to his superior officer who never falters in his bravery or love of country. Extra points to Sir Kenneth for looking dashing in his big blue military coat.
Nolan lets the young lads tap into their instincts, enabling naturalistic performances. Like a commanding officer, I’m sure that he was proud to see how far they came from the beginning to the end of the mission. Bravo to him for marshalling so much British acting talent into a stupendous tour-de-force.
Question: Do you know who, among the above noted actors, is the one non-British performer? *
Cut to the Chase: Formidable film making. An uncommon, and stellar, mix of action and emotion.
Comedy Highlight: Pop star Harry Styles as an unvarnished serviceman. He’s actually pretty good, but I kept “seeing” him in music videos.
*Answer: Irishman, Cillian Murphy.
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