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Film review: Christopher Nolan’s wartime drama Dunkirk is ‘breathtaking’

Showbiz | Published:

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christopher Nolan crafts a stunning mosaic of personal stories.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which tells the story of the evacuation of British forces from the beach at Dunkirk in 1940, is his first venture into historical film making.

(L-R) Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk
(L-R) Harry Styles as Alex, Aneurin Barnard as Gibson and Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Brothers/PA)

Press Association reviewer Damon Smith has his say: 

Brevity is the soul of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s harrowing wartime drama.

Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson
Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Brothers/PA)

He sets our nerves on edge in the hauntingly beautiful opening scene and steadily tightens the knot of tension in our stomachs until we are physically and emotionally spent.

Pulses race in time with composer Hans Zimmer’s terrific score, which includes a soft percussive beat like a clock ticking down to doomsday, and a new arrangement of Elgar’s melancholic Nimrod from Enigma Variations.

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Dunkirk World Premiere – London
Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas attend the world premiere of Dunkirk at the Odeon Leicester Square in London (Ian West/PA)

However, strict rationing of screen time comes at a price.

Characters’ fates intersect on oil-slicked sea, land and air largely without back-stories and when we do learn about these brave men’s pasts, it is predominantly through expository dialogue.

France Dunkirk Premiere
Tom Glynn-Carney, Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Jack Lowden at the premiere of Dunkirk, in France (Michel Spingler/AP)

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Tommy huddles alongside terrified recruits Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), whose fates rest in the hands of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Captain Winnant (James D’Arcy).

The officers take tough decisions about the order of evacuation under enemy fire.

“One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men,” coolly observes the Commander.

On the other side of the Channel, sailor Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers Winston Churchill’s impassioned call for civilian boats to rescue our boys.

He is accompanied by his surviving teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and the lad’s friend, George (Barry Keoghan).

Dunkirk glisters in fragments, which slot together to form a compelling and deeply moving narrative that captures this page in recent history from multiple perspectives.

The ensemble cast is excellent, including One Direction dreamboat Styles, who confidently hefts the emotional weight of one nerve-jangling stand-off in a sinking boat.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy (Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Brothers/PA)

Sound design is also striking, most notably when Zimmer’s score surrenders to the ears-splitting scream of dive-bombing Luftwaffe targeting British soldiers on the sand.

When the Oscar nominees are announced in January next year, you can be sure that Nolan and his gifted technical crew will be leading the charge.

Rating: 8.5/10

:: Dunkirk is released in UK cinemas on July 21

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