Time stands still in breath­tak­ing Dunkirk

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - MOIRA MAC­DON­ALD

Some­thing cu­ri­ous hap­pens to time in Christo­pher Nolan’s movies. On screen, it twists and dances and coils en­tic­ingly; off screen, it van­ishes. His mag­nif­i­cent new film, “Dunkirk,” seems to be over in a flash — you dis­ap­pear in­side of it and it changes you, as all great movies do.

Based on a re­mark­able story from the Sec­ond World War, “Dunkirk” un­folds on land, on the sea and in the air. The land is a vast beach in Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of Bri­tish sol­diers are trapped — the English Chan­nel on one side, en­emy forces on the other. The sea is that choppy, green-grey Chan­nel, where a small wooden yacht named Moon­stone, manned by a mid­dleaged fa­ther (Mark Ry­lance) and his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Car­ney), is one of hun­dreds of non-mil­i­tary ves­sels sum­moned by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment in a vast, un­prece­dented evac­u­a­tion mis­sion. And the air is above the Chan­nel, where an RAF Spit­fire pi­lot (Tom Hardy) bat­tles the Luft­waffe planes — de­spite a shot-out gas gauge.

These three sto­ries, tak­ing place in their own time (the evac­u­a­tion on the beach takes days; the flight, a mere hour) yet in­ter­wo­ven, each feel like an en­tire world; you watch re­al­iz­ing that you’re not breath­ing.

Two young sol­diers on the beach, des­per­ate to get onto a hospi­tal boat, grab a stretcher and race through the end­less crowds wait­ing on the mole (a long wooden pier); we don’t know their names or their sto­ries, but we race with them. A shell-shocked sol­dier (Cil­lian Mur­phy) stranded at sea, picked up by the fa­ther and son, pan­ics upon re­al­iz­ing that they are headed back into war — “I’m not go­ing back,” he says, his eyes mir­rors of hor­ror, and you see the hell of com­bat that “Dunkirk” doesn’t show us.

And, in one quiet nod of ap­proval be­tween the fa­ther and son — and in Ry­lance’s beau­ti­fully sub­tle por­trayal of quiet, de­ter­mined de­cency — you see the essence of this story: These young men fought, and these scores of reg­u­lar Brits climbed into boats to go re­trieve them, be­cause it was, sim­ply, the right thing to do.

“Dunkirk” suc­ceeds spec­tac­u­larly both emo­tion­ally and vis­ually. (See it in 70mm IMAX if you pos­si­bly can; I did, and am still reel­ing.) That chilly sea looks end­less from the seat of that Spit­fire; the lines of men on the beach ap­pear im­pos­si­bly long; that boat seems tiny amid the waves. Re­mark­able ac­tion se­quences un­furl, par­tic­u­larly a breath­tak­ing late scene in which flames from a sink­ing ship en­gulf the sea.

But it’s the quiet mo­ments that linger with you af­ter this film, and the aching sense of home — both as some­thing we yearn for, and some­thing that takes care of us — that per­vades it. “Dunkirk” is not a story of tri­umph, but of liv­ing to fight an­other day, with a lit­tle help from our friends. “All we did was sur­vive,” says a sol­dier, near the end. For now, he’s told, “that’s enough.”


Ken­neth Branagh in a scene from "Dunkirk," which re­viewer Moira Mac­don­ald says will change you.


Tom Hardy plays a fear­less RAF Spit­fire pi­lot.

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