No escape: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk a nightmarish war movie classic

David Roy evaluates Christopher Nolan's hugely anticipated war film Dunkirk, which features an ensemble cast including Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles

Kenneth Branagh, right, and James D’Arcy in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk

DUNKIRK (12A, 106 mins) War/Thriller/Action. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy. Director: Christopher Nolan

DUNKIRK'S startling depiction of warfare has the queasy, dread-inducing quality of a terrible nightmare from which you cannot wake.

Driven by Hans Zimmer's superbly unsettling score, an atonal churning drone flecked with ticking clocks and dive-bomber-aping shrieks which plunges the audience deep inside the bowels of the war machine, Christopher Nolan's visually stunning and minimally 'talky' film offers us a visceral taste of the week-long Allied evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940.

With the German army massing at their backs and the Luftwaffe attacking from above, England was visible across the Channel yet frustratingly out of reach to the 400,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force who massed on the sands while awaiting navy rescue.

From the opening shots of four dazed British soldiers wandering the deserted streets of the pretty French seaside town turned wartime fulcrum, Nolan infuses the proceedings in Dunkirk with a tangible surreality as hundreds of air-dropped German propaganda leaflets flutter down on the men through the afternoon sunshine.

Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is forced to flee from sniper fire: a few leaped walls and he's suddenly on the beach, a literal war zone teeming with columns of his fellow soldiers.

As Tommy resorts to desperate measures to ensure he's on the next available boat home, the director immediately ensures we get a sense of the panic, confusion and blurred morality which must have reigned during the evacuation.

Along with the terror of the intermittent German bombings tearing the men to shreds – though there is very little actual gore on display – no-one seems sure what is going on, from the rank and file right up the line to Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy), who is helping to co-ordinate the escape effort with the navy's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh).

Hampered by a shortage of suitable navy seacraft en route thanks to strategic wrangling back in Westminster, the British troops are at the mercy of a tide which reverses every six hours.

"I thought the tide turned every three hours?" Winnant enquires, echoing a belief that's become widespread among the vulnerable men shivering on the beach (which include One Direction man Harry Styles, who acquits himself well in a fairly prominent role).

"Well, it's lucky you're army and I'm navy, then," retorts Bolton, grimly.

RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) are among the few Spitfire pilots tasked with handling the aerial skirmishes over the English Channel, picking off the bombers attacking the rescue ships and the troops at Dunkirk beyond.

These dogfighting sequences are brilliantly staged, hugely tense affairs.

Dunkirk also puts us in the thick of a civilian flotilla of hundreds of small non-military vessels which were pressed into service to aid in the evacuation: Mark Rylance plays Mr Dawson, the captain of one such boat, who's decided that he and his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) must do all that they can to help.

Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan) tags along in search of adventure, but the trio get more than they bargained for when they encounter Cillian Murphy's shellshocked army man en route to France.

'Relentless' might be the best word to describe Dunkirk, which Nolan shot on a mix of IMAX and 70mm film to help create the most 'immersive' viewing experience possible.

For nearly two hours, its characters are under siege from a hugely realistic maelstrom exploding around them. There are few traditional heroes on display here, just frightened men reacting to events beyond their control as best they can.

"All we did was survive," mumbles one lucky soldier.

"And that was enough," soothes an older gentleman.

An instant classic, Dunkirk is a gripping cinematic nightmare you'll need to experience more than once.

Rating: Four stars

Dunkirk is being projected on 35mm at Queen's Film Theatre Belfast for the next week and at Strand Arts Centre, Belfast from July 28 to August 2; book online at and

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