The reviews are in. Critics have extolled the virtues of Christopher Nolan’s war epic, praising its structure, performances and emotional poignancy, culminating in a certified 92% ‘fresh’ rating on the movie oracle website that is Rotten Tomatoes. These reviews will certainly provide many valid reasons to head down to your local cinema (preferably an IMAX) to see Dunkirk‘s star-studded cast pull off what will surely be the masterpiece of the year, telling the story of air, land and sea in the evacuation of British forces from France in 1940.
Yet for many people, these expertly chosen superlatives will not have convinced them to part with their hard-earned cash. Many, like myself, will head to the cinema for much more personal reasons.
My grandfather passed away 10 years ago. Born in 1918 he was of perfect age to fight when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. As part of the Royal Corps of Signals he was one of the last off the beaches at Dunkirk and one of the first to return to France on D-Day in 1944, his responsibility being to setup telecommunications for oncoming invaders.
I always knew my grandpa as a fairly frail old man. My child brain struggled to see past the wrinkles and grumpy exterior to the man underneath. As an adult – and History student – my perspective is different and I regret the immaturity that dominated my relationship with him. I have read and learned of the events that took place in World War II. I’ve seen photos of him in uniform and I’ve heard, the sometimes chilling, accounts passed on from my grandfather to his sons, and now to his grandchildren.
History textbooks and imagination can only go so far. In this film, the power of 21st century technology comes together with Nolan’s astounding vision to bring Dunkirk to life, adding a new dimension to my understanding. In what is a brilliantly crafted and heartbreakingly spell-binding take on the fateful events that took place from May – June 1940, Nolan has managed to capture the real Dunkirk spirit, both good sides and bad, and create a masterpiece that is emotionally trying but devastatingly good.
The film avoids any significant character set up, bypassing the typical back story and instead throwing the audience straight into the centre of the action. Arguably, there are main characters but we know little more about them than any of the other soldiers queuing for a place on a ship home or patrolling the skies for enemy aircraft. Their story could be that of any soldier. The result is that one can see in the multitude of desperate faces their own grandfather, father or uncle, simply looking for a way home.
The sometimes nausea-inducing camera movements and nearly deafening sounds of gunfire serve to immerse you in the story entirely, turning the audience member into a spectator of devastation and human weakness as well as inspiring bravery.
I will never know what it was like to be on the beach, in the skies, or on a rescue boat that week. No amount of stellar acting and film-making can do that. Yet now, thanks to Dunkirk, when I remember my grandpa, when I look back at old photos and videos, I can see more clearly the brave soldier who faced unimaginable horrors, and survived.