Remember that moment in The Simpsons when Troy McClure dismisses Homer's pitch by saying: "But they've already made some movies about World War II"? Despite being the second film this year (after Their Finest) to feature the "miracle of Dunkirk", Christopher Nolan's 10th feature is a gamble. The second World War film is hardly voguish and this particular war film doesn't play by the rules.
There are no Americans nor, indeed, Nazis, to be found. There is hardly any blood, and nothing like guts. There are big-name actors, such as Tom Hardy, but Hardy, who is caught up in aerial dogfights and muffled by an oxygen mask (a nod, perhaps, to Bane) says very little, even to his commanding officer (an unseen Michael Caine, channelling Churchill over the radio). Speaking of which: there isn't even a shot of Churchill.
It’s not even a war film in the truest sense, as it concerns itself entirely with Operation Dynamo, the massive 1940 evacuation which saw 338,226 soldiers rescued by some 800 commandeered boats. Nolan’s script is written from three perspectives: from land, sea and air, and creates considerable suspense by cross-cutting between British forces, using a complex time dilation scheme, as they weather a relentless assault from the Luftwaffe. Don’t worry too much about the schematics: the momentum will carry you along, regardless.
As the film opens, a rabble of young Tommys, including Fionn Whitehead, are bombarded with leaflets demanding surrender. They seek droplets of water in hosepipes and cigarette butts in abandoned ashtrays before coming under fire. When they finally make their way to the titular beach, they meet thousands of other men in the same, terrible predicament. Surrounded and trapped by the enemy, they make desperate, flailing attempts to board or cling to warships, or anything that floats, but the vessels are constantly bombarded.
Spitfires (flown by Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off the Luftwaffe, while back in Britain every available boat – fishing, pleasure and life – sets sail with the intention of bringing the boys back home.
The relatively short trek back to Britain is maddening for both the men and their superiors. "You can practically see it from here," furrows Kenneth Branagh's commander, with a frustration that almost feels like a deliberate antidote to his cocksure Henry V.
A kindly Mark Rylance captains one of the plucky civilian boats that, ultimately, form a rousing patriotic rescue effort, replete with a blast of Elgar and a reading of Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech to the House of Commons. But before then there is messy, unpleasant business of battle. Helpful youngster George (Barry Keoghan) falls foul of a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy). Elsewhere, a group of increasingly desperate grunts, including Alex (Harry Styles: yes, he can act) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) squabble in the scramble to escape.
The notion of pure cinema – or Cinéma pur – sprouted from Dadaist experimentations during the 1920s and 1930s and refers to art that simply could not exist in any other medium. While lengthy sections of say, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo could pass for film that is "complete", pure cinema rarely escapes its avant-garde origins. Since Nanook of the North (1927), it has proved a useful guiding principle for documentaries, particularly such city symphonies as Man with A Movie Camera and I Am Cuba. It has helped power along the delightfully demented imagery of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Yet contemporary attempts to create entirely immersive cinema – see Gaspar Noé's Love and stay tuned for Terrence Malick's abysmal Song to Song – have mostly floundered.
Kudos, therefore, to Christopher Nolan for rising to the challenge. Taking cues from such tactile Soviet war films as Come and See, Nolan's Dunkirk is entirely experiential, yet entirely without gore. There is no chatter about sweethearts back home; there is only the impulse to escape and survive. Hans Zimmer's pounding score – a symphony that draws loudly from incoming fire, heartbeat, and finally, Nimrod – amplifies the rising panic. Hoyte van Hoytema's camera buzzes through the skies and across sea and sand.
Christopher Nolan is known to be a Luddite as film directors go, so Dunkirk has been fashioned with minimal CGI, using real aeroplanes, people and equipment where possible, and shot on the beaches in France where the events depicted took place. Thousands of extras and a long-retired French warship, the Maillé-Brézé, were involved in the effort. The crunching realism, as captured on large format film stock, is unmistakable, and puts every other rival summer spectacle to shame.
If you didn’t believe in the Miracle of Dunkirk before, you will now.