Deborah Ross

Visual, visceral, confusing

Christopher Nolan wants us to experience things viscerally and visually, without the hindrance of exposition or back stories – or any kind of character development

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has already been described as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘a glorious, breathtakingly vivid triumph’, but we need to be cautious. Look at all the fuss about Baby Driver and what an average film that turned out to be. This certainly isn’t your regular war film — no one, for example, says ‘it’s quiet’ and is then told: ‘yes, too damned quiet…’ — but in wanting to deliver a visceral, visual experience, without the hindrance of exposition or back stories, the narrative is often confusing and doesn’t add up to much emotionally. I suppose I should also add that, aside from the odd glimpse of a nurse, there are no roles for women, although, in this instance, I have decided not to call for any kind of boycott. (I must be softening in my old age.)

This account of the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, which still seems entirely miraculous — 338,226 men were rescued — is told from three perspectives: land, air and sea. By land, it is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a teenage squaddie who, at the film’s outset, is seen scrambling to the beach through a Dunkirk under heavy fire. He will later encounter another young solider, Alex, as played by One Direction’s Harry Styles, who doesn’t embarrass himself, but as this is a film with sparse dialogue — it’s the visuals that do the heavy lifting — he’s given little to say, which may be a blessing. By air, it’s Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the Spitfire pilots seeking to protect those below. (Given their flight helmets, it was often hard to tell which was which; there is a lot of eyebrow acting either way.) Meanwhile, by sea, it’s Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian with a little boat who has responded to the call for help and who picks up a shell-shocked officer (Cillian Murphy) on his way.

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