Heroic failure is something that Britain has always done well.  They have celebrated it and have a professional knack at putting the right spin on things.  See the Retreat from Kabul, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift as case studies.  Especially Rorke’s Drift, it was not like the way Stanley Baker and Michael Caine played it.  But the most hallowed one is Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, where the Royal Navy and the little ships of the south coast evacuated nearly 400,000 troops off the beach in France.  It was an incredible operation that allowed Britain to keep fighting and is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

Dunkirk sets out to show the evacuation through the three main elements of the operation.  Embarking troops onto ships at The Mole, via The Sea and the battle waged in The Air.  Each element is interwoven by Nolan to show the various terrors faced by the men trying to get home, the men trying to command and the men above trying to give them time.  Needless to say, Nolan executes this all spectacularly.

On The Mole, you have Kenneth Branagh as Royal Navy Commander Bolton working with James D’Arcy’s Colonel Winnart to get their men away, all the while under attack from the Luftwaffe’s Stukas and bombers.  Trying to get themselves on-board are squaddies played by Fionn Whitehead and Damien Bonnard.  They try everything but are thwarted by bombs, torpedoes and rank.  Coming via The Sea is Mark Rylance in his little boat.  With his son and his friend, they sail ever closer to the battle.  They come across a sunk destroyer with a lone survivor sitting on its upturned hull.  When they get Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked soldier on board, they begin to understand into what they are sailing.  Overhead, three Spitfires race to the beach.

The Air element is made up of a vic of Spitfires eking out their fuel to get to Dunkirk and be able to fight.  Tom Hardy, hidden behind oxygen mask and goggles, is the main part of this story and it is the most spectacular.  Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema used a twin cockpit Yak, mocked up as a Spitfire, to enable them to put their actors into the air and dogfight without resorting to green screen.  Using specially made Panavision periscope lenses attached to the IMAX cameras, they could position the shot over the shoulders of the actors/pilots to make you feel in the aircraft.  The effect, even in the 35mm version I saw, is incredible.

 No green screen was used in this shot.

No green screen was used in this shot.

This is not to say the bits on the beach and the boat are not equally as good, they come with their own stresses.  And it is this tension that Nolan ratchets up that is so effective.  Nolan’s film is not linear, you jump back and forth through time in the experience of the men we are following, this keeps us on our toes and keeps us very anxious throughout.  What could be a gimmick turns out to be the best use of a fractured time-frame since another of Nolan’s films, Memento.

Dunkirk is a truly remarkable achievement.  It shows what cinema can really do and this is something that we have not seen in a long while; a war film that engages you with the human struggle to the point you do not need buckets of gore to make it compelling.  The tension of you wanting these men, boys really, off the beach is enough.  You find yourself holding your breath for long periods, and not just when people are underwater.  At only an hour and forty-six minutes, the film races along, but not a moment is wasted, each shot considered and each action weighed.  Historically, there are issues I won’t go into, beyond Tom Hardy’s never ending supply of ammunition, because as a whole, this film is a master class in film making, shot on film by people who really care about the form.  Dunkirk is not just a truly great war film, it is a great film of the highest class.  I need to see it again in IMAX.  And again, on 70mm.  It really is that good.

Dunkirk is released in the UK on 21st July and is rated 12A.  I saw Dunkirk at the BFI Southbank, projected from a 35mm print.