Dunkirk: The Film – A Review

Dunkirk: The Movie

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.

12 thoughts on “Dunkirk: The Film – A Review

  1. I saw it this afternoon in Coral Gables. Posted some tweets about it. I felt as if I were going to see something
    unprecedented.

    Remembering the 1958 film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_(1958_film) and what I witnessed today was
    tantamount to pointing to the moon vs. being on it. The degradation of it all is what I still carry with me tonight. I had
    to perform tonight, myself, and really had to pay attention as I was still infected with the after-glow of seeing Dunkirk
    prior to coming to the theatre.

    All so young, so desperate and then that uplifting ending…well, we all stood up and clapped as the credits were
    running.

  2. it did make it seem like every ship got bombed and sunk and every german plane got attacked
    by a spitfire , neither was the case, a lot om men were taken off at night and the RAF were
    further inland , and also a few hurricanes would have been nice but other than that a very good
    well made film

  3. Thanks for this. I’ve been wondering
    whether I should go watch the movie. The
    trailers were fab, yet I always worry about
    whether or not they’ve taken unforgivable
    liberties with history.

    Sounds like this is a Private Ryan level of
    good. I’m going to make sure that I catch it
    in the cinema soon.

  4. I was disappointed in it. It seemed every
    destroyer got sunk, the scenes in the
    abandoned boat were unnecessary. The film
    didnt focus on the battle keeping the
    germans away and not enough made of the
    success of the little boats. The little boats
    was almost like an afterthought rather than a
    pivotal point in the war. 300 thousand made
    it back but the film hides it very well. I was
    disappointed and thought the bravery of the
    men of little boats was downplayed at the
    expense of men drowning . There was a
    chance for both but it missed it.

    1. Whilst nearly 100,000 men were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, almost 250,000
      were evacuated from the mole. The ‘Little Ships’ were undoubtedly courageous, but they
      were not the major players in the evacuation.

      PS. The same destroyer got sunk from several different view points! That of the escaping
      soldiers, the Spitfire pilot and the Little Ship.

  5. I have to disagree with the author’s premise about
    it being quite a while since there has been a major
    movie about World War II. Hacksaw Ridge was
    nominated for 6 Academy Awards in 2016.

  6. A great movie for me and all the essential
    elements needed to convey the accurate
    story were present. I thought it started very
    powerfully on the then deserted streets of
    Dunkirk. There were some fantastic
    photographic sequences and the movie was
    full of action throughout. I would like to have
    seen many more soldiers on the beaches
    and many more bigger ships but this was
    one story, not a documentary. My Dad told
    his own story of Dunkirk in his memoris and
    I’ve added many more memories from other
    people in my Fighting Through podcast and I
    think my Dad would have been so proud to
    have seen the film.

  7. A great movie for me and all the essential
    elements needed to convey the accurate
    story were present. I thought it started very
    powerfully on the then deserted streets of
    Dunkirk. There were some fantastic
    photographic sequences and the movie was
    full of action throughout. I would like to have
    seen many more soldiers on the beaches
    and many more bigger ships but this was
    one story, not a documentary. My Dad told
    his own story of Dunkirk in his memoris and
    I’ve added many more memories from other
    people in my Fighting Through podcast and I
    think my Dad would have been so proud to
    have seen the film, as I was.

  8. This is not an epic film and too many people felt it was going to be true to life. I found myself questioning many of
    the scenes…would you cross the channel in a shirt and jumper in May when other boats around you have crew
    dressed in heavy sweaters and oilskins…the sea breeze looked good yet the motor sailers did not use their sails at
    all…and the unforgivable scenes of the beach with modern container gantry cranes clearly visible in the background.
    The ‘cardboard’ acting was awful and the I came away disappointed.

  9. A brilliant and moving experience a must see I feel the film honoured all who were there at the time including my
    grandfather,
    BRILLIANT

  10. Anyone care to explain to me what the scene
    with the soldiers in the trawler was about?
    Who was shooting at it and so on? I got lost
    on that bit and why they didn’t bail out when
    the water started coming in.

  11. Having looked forward to seeing this film I came away oddly unsatisfied, feeling a great opportunity
    had been missed with modern technology to produce a truly epic and unforgettable film. The three
    timelines didn’t work for me, making the whole thing disjointed and difficult to follow at times. It
    was not about the inevitable liberties taken ( a Spitfire with seemingly unlimited ammunition,
    landing on sand with its wheels down, etc. ) but more the small-scale approach. The acid test ? I
    shan’t be buying the DVD.

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