I went to see this film in Sheffield today, with some trepidation. It wasn’t just a case of being a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s films (which I am), it was that this film is important. Why important? Well, it’s simply the biggest, most high profile film about the Second World War in some time. It will pique public interest on a massive scale, whether this is someone looking through Twitter or reading one of the many books about Dunkirk, or even going out to visit the battlefields with a company like Leger Holidays. Quite simply, it will put WW2 on the map, and into the public eye, in a way that is rarely possible.
So I wanted it to be good, very good. And to be faithful to the real Dunkirk. And it was, in both respects.
Dunkirk is not a war movie: it’s a movie about war and the experience of war, cleverly crafted by weaving three timelines together covering a week, a day and a single hour. That is the essence of its brilliance as the timelines only collide in the final sequence of the film, resulting in an incredibly moving conclusion. I won’t spoil that for those who haven’t seen it.
Watching this as a military historian who has worked on several documentaries about Dunkirk, I could not help cast a critical eye over it. Yes, there were discrepancies in kit, equipment and weapons, but only minor ones. The beaches did not look crowded enough at times, perhaps there wasn’t enough smoke over Dunkirk and perhaps the seas did not look busy enough with ships. There was arguably an over-focus on Little Ships, and the littlest of them, and some of the dialogue was occasionally questionable. But none of this was major, nor distracting, and it was clear my friend Joshua Levine had done his job well, as historical consultant.
Which begs the question: does historical accuracy matter? Of course, but Dunkirk is a film not a documentary. Many veterans of both world wars felt they could portray more of the truth of their experience through fiction and Dunkirk is all part of that genre. It doesn’t tell us the full story of Operation Dynamo, with every detail and nuance, but what it does do is give us a glimpse of so many angles, often with such intensity that even someone with no knowledge of WW2 could fail to walk away without an appreciation of what the experience at Dunkirk was like, or an appreciation of that generation.
The acting throughout this film was understated, and brilliant because of it. Many of the main characters hardly say a word, and don’t need to much of the time. Mark Rylance brings depth to the Little Ships story and Tom Hardy, as the pilot, captured the spirit of the RAF in 1940 in my opinion. The two lads who tell the story of the British Tommy were my favourites, though. Fair play to Harry Styles; he played his character well, and I liked it when he apologised for not having done anything brave except survive: that was enough, came the reply from the blind man, maybe even a WW1 veteran? But for me the previously unknown Fionn Whitehead was the real star of this film. His sequence at the end in particular, where he reads out of the newspaper, was incredibly moving. Again, I won’t post spoilers!
The World War Two generation is fast slipping from us. I have known them all my life, and I’m already half a century now. What that war meant to Britain, to the British people who lived through it, must never be forgotten, and its incredible story needs to inspire a new generation. That inspiration begins here, with Dunkirk. Not only a worthy film, but a great film, a film we have long needed.