Review / ‘Dunkirk’ (M) *** and a half

I SPENT nearly half an hour searching without success for information about who was writer/director Christopher Nolan’s historical adviser about the events embodied in this massive (106 minutes) film about one of the pivotal events of World War II.

My source for the following paragraph comes from “A World At Arms”, by Gerhard Weinberg (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

The battle of Dunkirk ran from May 26 until June 4, 1940, when the last of 330,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch troops were lifted by a fleet of naval and private and commercial vessels from the shallow beach at the northern France town of Dunkerque.

It wasn’t so much a battle as a rearguard evacuation of a beaten Allied army, while the Wehrmacht halted for repair and refurbishment. In the air, the Luftwaffe believed it was succeeding but the RAF disagreed. One of Hitler’s many strategic gaffes was that few of the British would escape. On the other hand, Britain feared that if the evacuation didn’t succeed, she wouldn’t be able to defend herself against a German invasion.

Seventy-seven years later, Nolan’s film reminding the world of those pivotal days cannot possibly cover the full gamut of their detailed events. His screenplay therefore tells the story in four streams, built by judicious editing into a different kind of complexity from the events it deals with.

Kenneth Branagh plays Boulton, a Royal Naval officer with three rings on his epaulettes and scrambled egg on his cap, trying to manage a task of immense difficulty. James D’Arcy plays Col. Winnant, apparently the senior Army officer on the day.

Mark Rylance plays Mr Dawson, in many ways the film’s principal character as he and his son prepare their pleasure boat for the Channel crossing and become the focus of several small encounters on the voyage.

As far as I have been able to establish, those three people existed. Without telling his parents, teenager George (Barry Keoghan), who jumps aboard Dawson’s boat as it leaves to give whatever help, may also have been real.

Purists may feel Nolan may have over-egged his film’s pudding. Re-creating its theme involves several hundred actors and technicians, plus military aircraft and ships. No military diary-keepers were on hand to record it as it happened. The bloopers are there, but the ending is authentic enough. Filming must have cost a bomb. The IMDb doesn’t tell how much.

At all cinemas

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