I don’t often write film reviews on here – not least because I don’t actually go to the cinema very often, and when I do I am not sure that anyone would be interested in what I think of it. However, having written Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health and written articles and given talks on the aftermath of war, I was actually asked for my thoughts (always a boost to the old ego).
I have written at length about how troops were (or rather were not) supported to deal with the trauma they had experienced, and emphasised that even into the 21st century we are regularly failing those experiencing combat stress. I have read many personal accounts, been told stories of distant fathers and grandfathers who were simply unable to express their feelings and who perhaps turned to drink, or on their families.
But it wasn’t really until I sat in the cinema last night and watched Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk that I realised how impossible it is for anyone who hasn’t lived through war to appreciate what those young men (and women) went through, again, in WW2. Don’t misunderstand me – it is the very best war film I have ever seen and succeeds on almost every cinematic level – but even this immersive experience is always tempered by the knowledge (which the actors, when interviewed have been quick to highlight) that the men we see on the screen would always hear ‘cut’ and know they were safe. Those on the beaches of Dunkirk – within 25 miles of home – were not so lucky.
Nolan’s use of time is wonderful, but you must pay attention, as you are watching the story unfold from different perspectives over interlocking periods and I know I got tripped up a couple of times. All the most obvious rules of cinema are broken here – we get no back story, we find out nothing about the characters, many of whom are anonymous, and the politics of the situation are totally ignored. We don’t see a German until right at the very end, and then for just a few seconds.
The whole cast brings an honesty (not all actions are ‘heroic’ in the usual sense) and intimacy to the film that at once makes it true on a wholly personal level, whilst at the same time portraying the universality of the horror. It is a terrific ensemble piece.
‘Star’ actors have little dialogue (in fact dialogue is at a minimum throughout) and it is genuinely the young men in the front line who are at the heart of the story, although Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh are wonderfully understated in pivotal roles. Much of a to-do has been made of Harry Styles‘s acting debut and he does well, and his presence is not at the expense of the other young lead, Ffion Whitehead, who is remarkable. Jack Lowden, as one of the two pilots struggling to support the vulnerable shipping below them, was also good, although it is Tom Hardy as the other pilot, who seems to set the hearts fluttering. When you have had a crush on Ken Branagh for as long as I have (about 30 years now) Hardy will have to do better than be a total hero (no spoilers!)
The soundtrack is an integral part of the action, raising the tension and heartbeat. It brings in a touching and stirring hint of Elgar, particularly at the end and is never intrusive.
What I loved most about this film was the authentic nature of the action – no CGI (or little) was used to recreate the horror. Surviving Spitfires were used, as were some of the original small vessels sailing over the channel to evacuate the desperate troops (as Branagh sights the flotilla heading towards the beach a real lump comes to the throat). There is little blood (I am sure there was plenty in reality, but this is no gore fest like Saving Private Ryan, for example) but neither was there a sanitisation of the experience. I literally held my breath in some of the watery sequences…
Cillian Murphy is the actor portraying the ‘shell shocked’ soldier, his odd reactions after being rescued diagnosed by the Mark Rylance character, who had obviously had his own, earlier experiences of war, and who had already been affected by the tragedy of the second conflict. Murphy’s was not a sympathetic character, which I was a little sad about, but it was good to see the issue highlighted as one that hadn’t ended in the trenches of the Great War.
It is a wonderful film, that can only add to our knowledge and appreciation of the role played by so many in the defence of Britain. There was no sense in the film that victory was on the way – in fact, there is some despair and a real sense of failure. But Churchill’s words, used at the end, leave you with a sense that it was an event that brought the country together – in failure then, there was new hope.
Go and see it as soon as you can, and at the cinema if at all possible. A small screen won’t diminish the brilliance of the film, but on the big screen, you can literally immerse yourself in it.