Rob­bie Collin on the new ‘war mas­ter­piece’

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - Rob­bie Collin

‘Dunkirk is ev­ery inch a Bri­tish film, with no de­tectable con­ces­sions to the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket’

Of the many things that stun and con­vulse you in

Dunkirk, the small­est might have the most last­ing im­pact. Early on, as the cam­era sur­veys the Bri­tish sol­diers stood along the French shore­line in thin, strag­gling col­umns, one thought – they’re so young – jams in your head like a door stop, and gets driven in harder with ev­ery pass­ing minute.

Christopher Nolan’s as­ton­ish­ing film, about the Al­lied evac­u­a­tion of oc­cu­pied France in 1940, is a work of heart-ham­mer­ing in­ten­sity and grandeur that de­mands to be seen on the best and big­gest screen. But its spec­ta­cle doesn’t stop at the recre­ations of wartime com­bat.

Like all great war films, it is ev­ery bit as trans­fix­ing up close: at the wheels of the civil­ian boats scud­ding across the Chan­nel, in­side the cock­pits of the fighter planes tear­ing over­head, and most of all on the beach, with those uni­formed boys barely out of their teens, wrestling with the strange no­tion of de­feat with hon­our even as they fight for their lives.

The land, sea and air strands of the story un­spool si­mul­ta­ne­ously, even though each one spans a dif­fer­ent pe­riod of time. It is one week for Fionn White­head’s point­edly named Tommy – as in Atkins, pre­sum­ably – and the other com­mon troops hud­dled on the beach; one day for the civil­ian sailors, like Mark Ry­lance’s Mr Daw­son, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-car­ney) and his school friend (Barry Keoghan) sail­ing from the English coast to Dunkirk; and one hour for Tom Hardy and Jack Low­den’s Spit­fire pi­lots, thin­ning out the Messer­schmitts that dart and dive over­head like buz­zards scent­ing blood. (In an un­nerv­ing piece of stream­lin­ing, the film keeps the en­emy troops them­selves al­most en­tirely out of sight: they’re only present as fall­ing pro­pa­ganda sheets, swoop­ing air­craft, bombs and bul­lets.)

It’s a struc­tural de­vice that sounds con­fus­ing on pa­per but is cream­ily in­tu­itive in prac­tice, cre­at­ing an un­shake­able sense that these scat­tered events are some­how driv­ing to­wards a sin­gle piv­otal his­tor­i­cal mo­ment.

It’s also about as self-con­sciously “clever” as Dunkirk gets: the film is so dif­fer­ently am­bi­tious from Nolan’s ear­lier work, it makes you won­der where on earth he’ll go next. (Please God, not Bond.) There’s ar­guably some­thing of the In­cep­tion spin­ning top to the jux­ta­po­si­tion of two images that ends the film – about which I’ll say no more here, other than it may be the sin­gle most haunt­ing cut in Nolan’s fil­mog­ra­phy to date. But the ques­tions it poses, about the ac­tual sub­stance and sig­nif­i­cance of the Bri­tish “Dunkirk spirit”, both then and now, are asked in to­tal se­ri­ous­ness.

And Dunkirk is ev­ery inch a Bri­tish film, with no de­tectable con­ces­sions to the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket. There isn’t, for in­stance, the com­mer­cially for­tu­nate pres­ence of an Amer­i­can face among the cast – al­though there is a bright and un­ex­pect­edly not-at-all-jar­ring per­for­mance from Harry Styles, for­merly of the boy band One Di­rec­tion, as one of the young sol­diers on the beach.

Cil­lian Mur­phy and Ken­neth Branagh also ap­pear in prom­i­nent, true-to-type sup­port­ing roles. But a cou­ple of con­text-set­ting spiels are as close as things come to the swelling rhetoric that the pres­ence of Branagh – or Hardy, or Ry­lance, for that mat­ter – might lead you to ex­pect. Amid the mo­ment-to-mo­ment hero­ism and strug­gle for sur­vival in Dunkirk, the di­a­logue is sparse and func­tional at most: think barked or­ders, cries for help, stoic ra­dio chat­ter as tracer fire whis­tles past canopies.

You could de­scribe Dunkirk as a silent film at heart – and the su­perb Hans Zim­mer score, bat­ter­ing, surg­ing, metro­nom­i­cally count­ing off the sec­onds, is such a con­stant pres­ence, it is more or less an ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Yet there’s also some­thing riv­et­ingly present-tense about it all: the pe­riod de­tail is metic­u­lous but never fawned over, the land­scapes as crisp as if you were stand­ing on them, the pres­tige-cinema glow turned off at the socket.

At one point, when the Bri­tish sol­diers are strafed by the Luft­waffe, Tommy throws him­self on the sand, and huge gey­sers of sand rush up into the air be­hind him, closer and closer, un­til the de­bris beats down on his head like hail­stones. It’s an in­deli­ble shot that takes on an ex­tra wak­ing-dream lu­cid­ity in Nolan’s pre­ferred field-of-vi­sion-flood­ing IMAX for­mat.

Steven Spiel­berg’s Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan and Ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Thin Red Line, that dou­ble-bill of mas­ter­pieces from 1998, rewrote the rules of en­gage­ment be­tween cinema and war, and changed the way many of us think about both.

Dunkirk is as un­like those films as they are each other, but all three fall into a tra­di­tion of cap­tur­ing real, enor­mous hor­rors at in­ti­mate quar­ters that can be traced as far back as Lewis Mile­stone’s All Quiet On the West­ern Front (1930). That task – per­haps more than any other in cinema – takes a film­maker at the peak of their pow­ers. This is the work of one.

Troops evac­u­ated from France wade out to a lit­tle ship in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Above, Harry Styles of One Di­rec­tion of­fers a ‘bright’ per­for­mance

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