Christopher Nolan – the writer/director of Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar – has made Dunkirk a harrowing, visually stunning and unforgettable World War II drama that is also the best film of his career so far.
From May 26 to June 4th 1940, more than 400,000 Allied soldiers found themselves trapped on the beaches and harbour at Dunkirk in France, pushed back, attacked and surrounded by the German army. Depicting those tense days as efforts to evacuate them often failed, the movie focuses on the three sides of the battle – in the air, on land, and on sea.
From the opening scene featuring a group of British soldiers under fire on a Dunkirk street, German propaganda leaflets fluttering around them, Nolan grips you tightly and doesn’t let go until the end credits have finished. We see a young soldier (Whitehead) making an attempt to leave the beach by water, a naval commander (Branagh) organising the evacuation, a RAF pilot (Hardy) heading towards the French coast with his fellow fliers, and a father (Rylance), son (Tom Glynn Carney) and friend (Barry Keoghan) set sail from the English coast, one of the many civilian boats and yachts requisitioned to help aid the rescue of the trapped soldiers.
There are other interesting characters, too, from Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked survivor to Harry Styles’ cocky young soldier aboard one of the Navy’s rescue boats, and Nolan skilfully intertwines their stories, playing with the movie’s structure by having the three timelines run at different speeds (for example, Tom Hardy’s story takes place over one day, Whitehead’s over a week).
Every moment, every storyline is tense, heart-wrenching and utterly involving – an impressive feat when you consider this is a movie with very sparse dialogue. There are no grand-standing speeches, no clichéd war movie heroics, just scene after mesmerising scene of men trying to survive, whether in an edge of the seat air battle (so stressful, you feel like shouting at Hardy to keep bloody shooting at the enemy fighters) or trapped underwater in a sinking ship.
Of course, this movie is aimed at adults, but for children over the age of 12 this is a fascinating history lesson that also celebrates hope, duty and the human spirit. Fans of Styles, going into the movie to catch a glimpse of the One Direction heartthrob, may get something far grittier than they were expecting (though there is very little gore, as noted below), but they will leave the cinema having experienced a superb piece of cinema, having held their breath from the start to the final frame.
Is Dunkirk suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
This movie is harrowing throughout, and the war scenes may be very distressing for younger (under age 12) and sensitive viewers. It is not a movie aimed at children, so parental discretion is strongly advised.
Many characters are killed in the movie, though the camera does not dwell on blood/injuries etc.
Dunkirk is very realistic. There are distressing scenes in which soldiers are shot down, drowned, trapped, or caught in explosions during the battle. Some of the actions of men are very upsetting.
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