Civilian craft of all sizes cross the Channel by Richard Jones

A look at Dunkirk (PG)

dunkirkIT’S May 1940 and hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

Not a new story or narrative by any means but how director Christopher Nolan and his Australian editor Lee Smith approach it is quite different to other movie scenarios.

For a start Nolan cuts between three strands: the bewildered soldiers trapped on the beach, the piers and assorted vessels; the voyage of a civilian boat which sets out from Dorset to assist with the evacuation and finally the heroics of a Spitfire pilot whose time in the air is measured in minutes with his fuel fast running out.

Nolan does not at any stage rely on patriotic rhetoric. Nobody speaks about Hitler, there’s no reference to Churchill or the War Cabinet and the enemy is unseen.

That is until the very end when Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) lands his out-of-fuel fighter plane on a deserted beach and is collared by German soldiers.

In charge of the shambolic beach evacuation is pier master Navy Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and the highest ranking Army person we see, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy).

The young soldiers focussed on by Nolan and played by unknowns apart from One Direction’s Harry Styles (who’s surprisingly believable) haven’t got a clue what’s going on.

Two of them try to get on an over-crowded boat by carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher onto the deck.

The wounded serviceman is accepted – the young soldiers are not and dismissed.

So along with other hopefuls they race down the sands, find a beached fishing trawler and clamber into its hull. Only problem is the trawler is stranded in German territory and nearby Wehrmacht soldiers use the hull as target practice.

So when the trawler is eventually re-floated as the soldiers had hoped – and banked on – by the rising tide, water rushes in through the holes caused by the machine gun bullets.

Back to square one for the would-be soldier evacuees.

Meanwhile civilian mariner Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son and a young friend are on their way from their home port in Dorset in a little boat.

Midway across the drink to France they find a soldier perched on what’s left of the hull of a torpedoed British ship.

The shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) thinks they’re heading back to England. He’s traumatised when Mr Dawson tells them they’re on their way to France and hurls teenage helper George down the steps into the cabin.

But the soldier is not the only survivor Dawson picks up. Farrier’s remaining Spitfire pilot mate is downed by an enemy Messerschmitt and he crash lands into the Channel.

Despite enemy planes buzzing about overhead the British sailors manage to rescue the crashed pilot after smashing his cockpit cover and freeing him as the water rises up to chest level.

Farrier is still flying and he lands a hit on a German bomber which had been sent to sink vessels closer in to Dunkirk.

How the pilot has managed to conserve as much ammunition as he has is the unnerving question. He uses chalk to write down on the bulkhead his fuel situation – surely the machine guns must be running on empty, also.

Still, it’s a very realistic take on a terrible situation. Nolan has used 70-millimetre film which brings the wide shots on the beach into clear focus.

Not just tiny ants, lined up and waiting. Real soldiers with real, haggard faces.

Likewise the propaganda leaflets which pour from the sky in the opening shots. And the red jam on the white bread handed out to the starving soldiers on a hospital ship just before it, too, is sunk.

All very clear and sharply focussed in Nolan’s great care with the details.

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