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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Film review: Dunkirk catches the historical verity of the event

From an opening scene that shadows an English squaddie scuttling through the streets of the town while an unseen enemy takes potshots at him, Dunkirk casts you into a world where all order has disappeared – for the Allied forces at least

A scene from Dunkirk. AP
A scene from Dunkirk. AP

There is a large problem with making a film in which one of the principal virtues is that you become lost in a chaotic world.

After 100 minutes in which no rhyme nor reason applies, when the director cutely ties up all your loose ends in the final 10 minutes, the audience may walk away feeling shortchanged, as I did.

From its opening scene that shadows an English squaddie scuttling through the streets of the town while an unseen enemy takes potshots at him, Dunkirk casts you into a world where all order has disappeared – for the Allied forces at least.

It is not long before the audience is introduced to the film’s three key plot lines and locations: The Mole, The Sea and The Air. The Mole refers to the causeway used to evacuate British and French troops from the beaches.

What follows is a loosely structured narrative, during which terrifying dive bombers emerge from the fog and torpedoes strike escaping vessels full of men who think they have been saved – this serves as a useful device to understand the separate strands and how they come together.

The answer turns out to be at grunt level, the stars of this film – and the historical event itself – being the individuals who, often shorn of any official direction in the fog of war, take the initiative in thousands of small-scale confrontations and incidents.

There are precious few members of the military top brass floundering in the sea, grappling to climb onto overcrowded pleasure boats sent as part of a vast armada from England. Indeed, beyond Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander (stiff and austere, like the heroes in old black and white war films) overseeing the evacuation, the most we are aware of the upper echelons is when they shoulder past NCOs queueing to evacuate saying “Officer coming through”.

So many of the details in Dunkirk are brilliant and adequately reflect the time director Christopher Nolan spent ensuring his epic was historically accurate. Many of these are noticeable in scenes previous war films have left out of the narrative – soldiers and sailors diving into the seas from burning ships end up coated in thick black oil; warplanes that have no ejector seats to provide a deus ex machina escape for the pilots; the red-crossed casualty boats that are bombed regardless of the situation by the relentless Stuka dive bombers.

The spirit of this war blockbuster is a rebuke to the faceless decision-makers that cast everyday men and women into supranational conflicts that have little bearing on their everyday lives. Few women make an appearance in Dunkirk – most are nurses on the aforementioned hospital boats.

A shared humanity is what Nolan presents as a driving force for the heroism that rescues the army of 300,000-plus from drowning in the sea or being mown down by the German army.

And yet this tribute to the resolve of the people does have its share of sour notes: French hackles have risen over the near invisibility of their forces; the Germans are heard and felt through their actions, but never seen as human beings.

This is a very British triumph – appropriately, it’s a defeat to most eyes.

Mark Rylance is suitably gruff as one of the owners of a little boat sent to rescue men; Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones remain sharp as a blade; and Harry Styles proves he can act as well as he sings.

Tom Hardy spends another movie in a vehicle, but enjoys some of the finest action sequences in the film. And Branagh does appear to be phoning it in a little, bringing little to the role beyond leading from the front with a steely jaw.

It is when Dunkirk eschews the heroics, and shows the dismal remnants of the British Expeditionary Force grasping for the helpline that was the ¬relief ¬effort initially extended them, that the film soars.

The story of the destroyers and frigates that were picked off by the overwhelming force of the German Luftwaffe, the brave Spitfire pilots who took on an enemy that enjoyed massive superiority in the skies, the poor bloodied infantry waiting on the beaches not knowing whether they would face death from the sea, air or land.

When Nolan’s film catches the historical verity of this event, it is in its element. But when it imposes a trite Hollywood ending that attempts to enforce closure on it, Dunkirk betrays all the hard work that went into it.