Christopher Nolan’s gut-wrenchingly powerful WW2 triumph

Watching Dunkirk is almost like being there: we are immersed on land, sea and air in the desperate fight for survival as thousands of Allied troops wait on the French beach for deliverance. Writer-director Christopher Nolan ratchets up the tension to gut-churning effect, with the help of Hans Zimmer’s visceral score.

The true story of how a flotilla of small boats sailed across the English Channel in 1940 to rescue thousands of retreating soldiers is one we like to think embodies all that was Great about Britain during the Second World War. Dunkirk shows us the plucky underdog spirit, the ‘make do-and-mend’ pragmatism, the small acts of self-sacrifice and courage. It also shows us desperation, bigotry, shell-shock and selfishness, as young men fight for their lives in hellish circumstances.


Nolan’s casting is spot-on. If we had to choose three British actors to go into war with, then we could not hope for a better trio than Mark Rylance (quietly brave, soulful and compassionate), Tom Hardy (ace Spitfire pilot and derring-do war hero) and Kenneth Branagh (stoic, talks about ‘home’, looks good in his uniform). We are not even on first-name terms with the young men in the thick of the action. Harry Styles might be pop star, but here he is just another bedraggled Tommy and he does a good job in the role.


The film opens on the streets of Dunkirk, as a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) watches leaflets flutter down from the sky. He reads one and it spells out what he already knows too well: ‘you are surrounded’. With a deafening crack of gunshot, we are off. Unseen Germans are now firing at his regiment, so we follow his attempts to escape, down side-streets, over garden walls and sheds, until he eventually reaches the beach, where thousands more like him are ‘waiting for a miracle.’


Cue panic, as a dive-bomber screams towards them. ‘Where’s the bloody Air Force?’ shouts someone. Air defence against the might of the German army seems to be three Spitfires, but so long as Tom Hardy is flying one there is hope. Nolan switches from beach to air to sea, where, back on the English coast, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son are loading life-jackets into their sailing boat, in preparation for its requisition by the Navy. On ‘the Mole’ pier at Dunkirk a commander (Kenneth Branagh) gazes towards home and reasons that the Germans are not using their tanks because ‘they can pick us off like fish in a barrel’.

Despite knowing how it ends, the tension that Nolan generates from his three dramas is at times almost unbearable. We experience Dunkirk kinetically through a sick feeling of dread in our stomachs. In large part this is down to the accompanying music by Hans Zimmer, who has composed a score which mimics both the noise of war (whine of sirens, descending bombs) and our bodily responses to it (accelerating hearbeats, panic).

At the darkest hour, when horror is piled upon horror, Zimmer combines his different motifs into a gut-wrenching crescendo: the quickening pulse of sawn cellos; the insistent mosquito whine of high-pitched violins; helicopter synths and engine-room metal-bashing. This is a devastating match-up of sound and vision.

Amidst the epic sweep of it all, Nolan is concerned with what unites us: our primal desire for survival and home. When Mark Rylance’s character is mocked for his small boat (‘you’re weekend sailors. You should be at home’), he replies: ‘there won’t be any home if we allow the slaughter across the Channel’).