Dunkirk: film of the year?

Dunkirk is a film that provides a distinctly British take on the early years of World War Two, yet also an honest one, in a way that connects with the deepest aspect of this country’s psyche.

With most films that describe historical events, you can provide yourself with the luxury of a certain detachment, either because the events depicted happened so long ago or because they happened to someone else.

Dunkirk poster better

Downfall, whilst a great film, wasn’t going to tug any heart-strings- because no one wanted to relate to the German war-effort, let alone Hitler himself. Even Pearl Harbour (whilst not a great film) offered some level of detachment. Dunkirk though consciously hits home, precisely because the majority of those involved were British. Fathers, uncles or brothers of so many people alive today.

So this film was always going to affect people, and it therefore takes a skilled filmmaker to unfold this film in a way that retains honesty and doesn’t just try to salve national pride. The way some scenes were handled could easily have ended up as the worst kind of patriotic pastiche. Christopher Nolan retained his subtlety though, rather than harping on patriotism alone, letting the bars of Nimrod play out for only a few seconds, so as not to whitewash reality.

Instead, Dunkirk’s success lies in the way it brilliantly interweaves the stories of the men involved, showing how fellowship can form in an instant, and be broken just as quickly when those same men weigh up their own survival against what is going on around them.

While the disparate nature of the plot, with its multiple storylines taking place out of sync, can feel a little jarring at first, it is a fitting vehicle for telling the story. One that mirrors the fog and confusion of war, but also presents the choices made by the characters, and the way they affect overall developments, in a much more vivid and discernible fashion.

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What’s more it allows the film to show how one character’s actions can affect another’s fate, as well as the sometimes cruel nature of that fate. So throughout the film we are shown instances of one character’s kindness, or valour, benefitting others. We are also shown an all too human selfishness as men become desperate enough only to think of their own survival. For every moment of heroism to stir the heart, there’s another moment of desperation, and blind panic to bring home that Dunkirk may be, in places, a tale of courage, but never one of glory.

Away from the story there are plenty of other elements to enjoy about this film. For one thing its shot in a very old school format, with a visible lack of anything that’s discernibly CGI, except maybe the Stukas, as there are only two of them left in the world. The air scenes in particular benefit from this approach, with the use not only of real Spitfires and Buchons (a Spanish made version of the Bf-109 that’s often been used in WW2 films from Battle of Britain to Dark Blue World) but also of beautiful camera angles shot from the wing, and one lingering image that, if only for a moment, reduces the scale of war to that of one man hunting down another.

The Spitfire, of course, is a potent symbol of the Britain’s war story and the decision to feature it benefits the film immensely by allowing the narrative to tap into the plane’s almost mythological status. It has become a symbol of determination and defiance, and Tom Hardy flying one plays on the audience’s emotions accordingly.

Not that the actors in this film are outshone by the Spitfire. Their performances are excellent throughout. Dunkirk is but the latest British production to make the case for why this country’s actors are so highly regarded around the world.

Harry Styles, the former One Direction star, makes a great case for why acting may become his new career.

One or two of them will doubtless be up for contention when awards season comes along, and while Dunkirk may fare better at the BAFTAs than at the Oscars, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Rylance or Kenneth Branagh wins the best supporting actor category.

Either man though should be ready for competition from Harry Styles. The former One Direction star makes a great case for why acting may become his new career, giving a performance that is talented, moving, and perfectly in tune with the tenor of this film.

Ultimately Dunkirk is a great film that shows this pivotal chapter in British and European history for what it was- a desperate retreat. At points it was every man for himself, as shown by the treatment of the only French character amongst the main ensemble, but ultimately it was a retreat that allowed the struggle to continue.

By Gareth Wood

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