CITY PRESS REVIEW: Dunkirk: A gritty, challenging war epic

City Press Review: Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branag

‘Well done,” says an old man handing out hot drinks to returning soldiers.

“But all we did was survive,” replies a bedraggled soldier wrapped in a blanket.

“That’s enough,” answers the old man.

This exchange captures the essence of Christopher Nolan’s telling of the incredible rescue of 338 000 soldiers.

Dunkirk is a challenging war film because it doesn’t include glorious victory, and the bravery depicted in it is also low key – no individual heroics in the tradition of the most recent award-winning war flick Hacksaw Ridge. Rather, it is a collective effort by disparate groups of soldiers and civilians who grimly pull together to salvage as much as possible in a desperate situation.

The Allies were defeated by the Germans and helplessly trapped on a beach in France, the jetty bombed and the sea unhelpfully stormy. Nolan is probably the only director who could have got away with this risky film – it has no American actors in it, it has no American soldiers in it (the Americans only entered the war after Pearl Harbour in 1941, Dunkirk happened in May 1940) – and so it could have flopped in its primary market of the US. It didn’t – raking in a solid $50 million (R653 million) over its opening weekend. This could be down to Nolan’s fan base – or perhaps it’s because One Direction’s Harry Styles plays a soldier in it.

Hopefully, it’s successful because it’s a superbly executed film about a fight that proves that winning the battle is not always the best way to win the war.

In the case of Dunkirk, the battle provided Winston Churchill (who only became Britain’s prime minister 16 days before the event) with material for his most famous speech, and he was able to refocus the war thanks to the rescue effort that returned to him the majority of his 400 000-strong army.

Nolan, who travelled the English Channel on a small boat to understand this element of the rescue effort, tells the story from three perspectives – the infantry on the beach, the air force in the sky and the navy on the sea.

The most incredible part of the rescue is the small civilian boats that left England to come across and collect as many soldiers as they could, amid bombs and sinking ships.

Mark Rylance plays Mr Dawson, a civilian who is the captain of one of the small boats.

Nolan didn’t make use of special effects – instead, he used real ships and a real Spitfire to recreate the sense of organised chaos. The tension is palpable – the Spitfires have only an hour of fuel left as they hold off the German Luftwaffe, while the small boats race across the Channel to find the desperate soldiers.

Dunkirk is an epic war film that shows that it’s not grand designs that save the day, but many ordinary people pulling together in the face of insurmountable odds.

Channel24 also reviewed Dunkirk. Read it here