Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Barry Keoghan, James DÁrcy, Aneurin Barnard
I’m a big enthusiast of World War 2 movies, mostly because of my own personal interest in the Second World War. In my opinion, no other war was probably more pivotal to human history than the one between 1939 and 1945. So when I heard that Christopher Nolan – yes, the very same one who directed Memento, Prestige, The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception) was making a movie on the evacuation of Dunkirk – historically known as Operation Dynamo – I had to watch it.
Dunkirk doesn’t have a clearly defined protagonist – unlike some of Nolan’s previous ventures. Instead it is told through three eyes in a non-linear timeline. Beginning a week ahead of the climax, the first of the main characters is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private who escapes German fire inside the city and makes it to the beaches of Dunkirk. The second is in the water – a certain Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) find their boat requisitioned by the Royal Navy for Operation Dynamo and set out to France to help the stranded soldiers. The third is through Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who are commandeering a group of three Royal Air Force Spitfires across the Channel.
There are a few things that hit you in the movie from the off. Hans Zimmer (one of the usual suspects in a Nolan movie, so to speak) has done a brilliant job with the soundtrack of the movie and “brilliant” is an understatement. I especially liked the one soundtrack where he integrated the famous sound that the Junker- Stuka dive bombers made into a bone chilling depiction of impending death. The other thing to hit you is the visuals of it. I haven’t watched a lot of movies in recent times but after the Brad Pitt-Marion Cotillard starrer Allied, this movie is the one that had the most visual vivacity to it, if you will.
To me, Dunkirk is a “mixed-feeling movie”. It’s a great movie if you want to experience the actual fear of being in the middle of a dogfight, the subject of yet another Stuka bombing raid or trying to get away before the oil floating on water catches fire. The cinematography, the camera work and the music provide the intensity for you. But it’s a totally different matter if you are looking at Dunkirk from a storyline point of view. I understand, of course, that in any fictional movie or book set in a non-fictional setting, there is some leeway granted to the filmmaker or the author in order to bring out the best product. But when you see six British soldiers walking down an apparently untouched Dunkirk street at a time when in reality, the Luftwaffe had killed pretty much anything and everything in its way – including Dunkirk-, Christopher Nolan, you realise, has thrown a lot of historical accuracy out the window.
Next are the plots for the whole story. The Dunkirk evacuation was made to seem like a matter of a few destroyers, minesweepers and cruisers by the movie. While I understand the need to keep the viewer’s attention on fixed locations and objects, this is a large neglect of what the Dunkirk evacuation really was. I didn’t know the exact numbers at the time but later research told me that the British had 39 destroyers during Operation Dynamo. Barely a few are seen here. Although to be fair, the Royal Navy did withdraw 19 of them for future defence of the island. But nevertheless, 20 destroyers is a far cry from the two or three shown in the movie.
While some of the more minute details were maintained, like the one-hour RAF fight time over the Channel and the conflict between the French and the English over soldier evacuation, it is hard to gloss over other major things that are amiss. Women on Dunkirk ships, Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay being in Dunkirk instead of at Dover (where he actually was), the RAF deployed planes over the Channel in far larger groups than three, and Churchill’s “We shall fight on beaches” speech being read out a day earlier than reality are just hard to digest.
Historical inaccuracy aside, there isn’t much of a storyline for the characters themselves and oftentimes they feel like accessories to a film that uses sound and visual effect to put you in a tense atmosphere. The least exploited amongst all the good actors on screen, I felt, was Tom Hardy as RAF pilot Farrier. And what’s worse than anything else is the way he ends his mission. Out of fuel and apparently out of options, he ends it by landing on the Dunkirk beach, inside German territory and eventually gets captured – all this after a long, slow, one-more-kill containing ride along the scenic – sparsely bombed French coastline. I say apparently because given the length of his fuel-less ride across the coast of France, the sensible thing would have been to turn around, ditch his plane in the middle of the sea and get rescued by one of the Little Ships of Dunkirk. I can totally imagine the conversation.
Nolan: So you ditch the plane and you get rescued by the ships. That’s how we end it.
Hardy: Nah. That ain’t a Tom Hardy ending brother. I need fire.
Hardy: And Germans too. Let there be Germans.
To me, Fionn Whitehead did a great job of acting as Private Tommy and was complemented well by Aneurin Barnard as the French soldier pretending to be Gibson. Harry Styles had a solid debut on screen and proved that he was well worth the hype. Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and John D’Arcy had limited screen time but played their roles to perfection.
All in all, Dunkirk is a great experience for the movie’s soundrack, the cinematography and the visual effects but if you’re looking for a story like Saving Private Ryan (the one war movie that was well ahead of it’s time) and if you’re looking at things being realistic, this one is a bit of a downer. Nevertheless, the movie is thrilling and will leave you feeling tensed and at the edge of your site. And if you’re looking for someone to thank for that, it’d be Hans Zimmer and Hoyte Van Hoytema.