CHRISTOPHER Nolan’s relentless Dunkirk left me feeling exhausted, near-deafened and profoundly grateful.
Exhausted by the almost non-stop action of Tommies taking fire on the beach, ships being sunk in the Channel and RAF pilots bidding to down the Luftwaffe targeting the rescue fleet and the exposed infantry.
Near-deafened by a constant ticking, whirring background soundtrack (either an allusion to a ticking time bomb or a metaphor for the puttering engines of scores of private boats called into emergency action) punctuated by explosions and gunfire.
And grateful once again for the service of the millions who put their lives on the line to keep the Nazis at bay (even if Churchill did brand the circumstances surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation a “disaster”).
To paraphase Mark Rylance’s pleasure boat skipper Mr Dawson points out when challenged to turn his craft for home: “If we don’t go on, there won’t be a home to go back to.”
Such was the desperation of the British cause when Dunkirk pressed the Navy into the last-ditch measure of commandeering small boats to ferry 400,000 stranded soldiers to the destroyers which would bring them back across the Channel.
Two themes jump out from Nolan’s 100-minute assault on the senses — his fondness for hyper-realism and a presumably-deliberate absence of character development.
Those Spitfires, warships and little boats we see on screen are not CGI, they’re the real thing, while the director’s insistence on both shoving his camera right in the faces of his actors and giving the audience point-of-view images means you can’t help but feel right at the centre of the action.
There are feats of daring and small but vital acts of humanity but what we mainly see portrayed is the self-preservation instinct in action, men ultimately forced to look after number one when discipline and formation is shattered by shells and shooting.
Dunkirk has little time for heroes: Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander overseeing the evacuation from a pier in the German firing line is the closest we come to a celebration of courage under fire, but even he is moved to watery eyes by the sight of the British flotilla emerging from the mist.
The narrative generally follows three individuals caught up in a drama so much bigger than their own experiences — Rylance’s aforementioned small boat captain, newcomer Fionn Whitehead’s war-weary every-soldier (named Tommy — as in the nickname for British squaddies —to show his general insignificance as just one man among almost half a million) and fighter pilot Farrier, unmasked only in the final scenes as A-lister Tom Hardy.
But neither they nor Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier, rescued from the sea by Rylance and his young crew, is allowed to dominate proceedings.
Dunkirk, you see, is all about the bigger picture, the massive team effort which defied expectations to keep Britain fighting “on the beaches” and elsewhere.
It lacks the emotional wallop of that other recent Normandy-based epic Saving Private Ryan.
But perhaps that’s the point — Nolan’s documentary feel and refusal to single one man out for greatness reminds us that this key moment in modern British history was about the many, not the few.