I have a deep passion for history. I love learning about times of victory and times of struggle. The rescue of the stranded soldiers off Dunkirk at the beginning of World War II is one that I am fascinated about as it was a time of despair but also of miraculous action on the part of the British nation. When I saw the trailers for this movie, I knew that I had to see it, to judge for myself if the film did justice to the courage of the soldiers and the sailors who set out to bring them home. I was enthralled by the depiction and it was everything that I had hoped.
The movie begins with a group of British soldiers walking through the town of Dunkirk, propaganda fliers dropped by the Germans falling through the sky. The flier shows the position of the British army, pinned on the coast, having been routed from Belgium. The men are shot and one, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) escapes, through the French lines and joins the men on the beach. The men are lined up, 400,000 of them, on open sand with no cover and no way to protect themselves from the enemy aircraft raining down bombs on their heads. The British Navy have rallied their carriers but there aren’t enough ships. The ones they do have are under constant attack by enemy planes as well as mines that prevent night crossings. Due to the shallow water, the destroyers were unable to approach the beaches. The British pilots are attempting to provide air cover but eventually the soldiers are left with one carrier and one plane. So the British Government puts out a call: A rally of the small boats of Britain to come to the rescue of the soldiers. They are answered by all of Britain.
Christopher Nolan is the director of Dunkirk, a fictional accounting of the rescue and he tells it from three different points of view. One follows Tommy as he joins a group of soldiers trying to escape death and escape on the boats. The second is one of the small boat captains, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) coming to the aid of the soldiers. The final viewpoint are the pilots fighting the Germans up above in the skies, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). Each group gives the viewer characters to root for and connect with but more importantly, helps show how the events unfold. Without each piece, the viewer is left unaware of the full depiction of how the soldiers escaped Dunkirk and made it home.
The story is told in a nonlinear fashion. You meet Tommy, a week out from the final events. He meets up with a soldier who is burying another and taking his boots. Tommy ends up helping him and the pair attempt to get on a carrier by carrying a wounded soldier to safety. They struggle along the beach to reach the ship in time, only to be turned away. Only the wounded are being taken. They find a place along the dock but must wait their turn to be taken to safety.
The scene shifts to Mr. Dawson, captain of The Moonstone as he readies the boat for a trip a day prior to the final scene. He is joined by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) who wants the chance to be a hero. They head out to help the soldiers. Overhead, we are introduced to Fallon and Collins as they battle to clear the skies of enemy fighters, an hour prior to the convergence of storylines. The pilots are instructed to watch their fuel as they need enough to return to England.
As Tommy and his friend wait, they listen to Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) talking to Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy). He shares that Winston Churchill has asked them to rescue 35,000 men. They don’t anticipate being able to take more than 45,000 due to the limits on ships and planes. Winnant is horrified that they can’t help more men but Bolton explains the disaster in Belgium has destroyed Britain’s resources.
As Tommy and his fellow soldiers make multiple attempts to find a boat to take them home, the pilots engage in combat. Mr. Dawson rescues a soldier and a downed pilot along the trip to Dunkirk. Tensions mount as the thousands of men are left uncertain as to their fate, uncertain if the boats will make it in time with so little support.
There are so many heartbreaking and inspiring scenes with phenomenal acting. You see men who drown in the water mere inches from a boat or men jumping off a boat as it is sunk from underneath them. You see Mr. Dawson rescue one of the pilots. He gives a moving speech “The call went out. We aren’t the only ones who answered.” These are the small moments of bravery and desperation that will break your heart, leave you with tears in your eyes.
The filmography holds you in thrall as you follow each moment, the shots deliberately set up to keep you on the edge of your seat and in suspense over which men will be saved from the water. The music is loud but helps create an atmosphere of war as does the non-linear filming. The actors play their parts incredibly. Kenneth Branaugh is excellent as Commander Bolton, both stalwart but also played with grace. Mark Rylance as the captain of the small boat is down to earth and compelling. Fionn Whitehead as Tommy depicts the desperation of the soldiers brilliantly. Tom Hardy is calm and courageous as Fallon.
The historical aspects are accurate, tiny details adding to the atmosphere, such as one of the pilots using a compass to track the enemy pilots. The jackets have the broader stitches rather than the finer stitches we use now. The sails of the boats are weathered. The rifle is an Enfield like the ones used at the beginning of the war. It is this kind of attention to detail that helps keep the viewer engaged in the film. Even the music keeps you entranced, as it adds to the mix of chaos, the sound matching the desperation of the men attempting to reach the boats.
There are some small elements that could detract. The soldiers aren’t truly introduced by name at the beginning and you only know them by their faces and their actions. This was sufficient for me overall as it helped to maintain the mood but it did add a layer of confusion. The out of order storytelling might confuse some viewers. There is an attempt at the beginning to clarify when events are happening but it is easy to lose track. History is told by the winners as we recreate the events of the time so for the men experiencing it, the events are chaotic, and the style does add a layer of truth to the narrative.
This is a message of hope in the face of overwhelming odds, of men and women who fought to bring their soldiers home in a defining moment for England. That truth is driven home when you discover that over 300,000 were rescued by tiny boats overloaded and at great peril. It is a story about snatching a small victory out of the jaws of defeat. If you like Christopher Nolan’s style of direction, you will find this compelling and poignant. I left the theatre inspired and in tears.
Rating: 4.5 stars
In May 1940, Germany advanced into France, trapping Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. Under air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were slowly and methodically evacuated from the beach using every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found. At the end of this heroic mission, 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were safely evacuated.
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Music composed by: Hans Zimmer