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Battle of Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan first director to tackle Dunkirk legend

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan can't believe he's the first director to make an authentic movie about the Battle of Dunkirk.

The Dark Knight trilogy director grew up fascinated by the heroics of sea-faring Brits who sailed across the English Channel to rescue stranded troops on the beaches of France during World War Two, and one treacherous boat journey he made with his producer wife Emma Thomas 20 years ago made him realise he was the man to take the story to the big screen.

"Like most British people, Dunkirk is a story I've grown up with," he tells WENN. "I don't even remember the first time I was told about the events at Dunkirk. As kids we received this very simplified, almost mythic fairytale version of what happened there.

"And then Emma and I had an experience over 20 years ago, where we made the crossing with a friend of ours who owned a small boat. We made the crossing about the same time of year the evacuation had taken place and went to Dunkirk. The crossing was extremely difficult. The channel was very rough and it felt difficult and dangerous - and that was without people dropping bombs on us.

"I came away from that experience with my respect and fascination for the people who had taken part in the real evacuation absolutely cemented. I've never quite understood why a modern film hasn't been made about it and, as a filmmaker, those are the kind of gaps that you're looking to fill."

Nolan is glad he got the chance to make Dunkirk, because directing the film was a truly gripping experience.

"For me, it's always been about (a) story that hooks me and I have an emotional connection with and will sustain me through the years of making the film," he adds. "I'm very simple-minded. I can only do one thing at a time. I'm not very good at planning what I'm gonna do next so I dive in and I concentrate on one film for two or three years. It has to be a story that will keep me enthusiastic about it for that period of time. This did just that."

Dunkirk, which stars Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy, opens in cinemas on 21 July.

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Here is 3AW's Jim Schembri's review in full:

There’s no question: Dunkirk stands high and proud as one of the finest films yet about World War 2. Writer/director Christopher Nolan delivers a powerful, haunting, moving and memorable experience that, in a brilliant touch, turns out to be more immersive than explosive.

In retelling the mass evacuation of Allied troops from the French beaches after a massive military failure in 1940, Nolan bravely sidesteps many of the conventions of the standard war film to create a vivid, often impressionistic vision of a military disaster that was salvaged by the bravery of ordinary folk.

Given the historical volume of the actual event the film is a triumph of understatement.

There are, for instance, no scenes of officers pointing at strategic maps with sticks talking about missions or objectives. There are no scenes back at the war office as Churchill monitors the situation. The only details of the rescue mission are given on the beach and relate only to the getting the men off the beach.

Nor do we see any Germans, who are abstracted as “the enemy”. We don’t see what’s happening on “the other side”, there is no pretense in offering a “balanced view”. This was a brave decision that Nolan uses to great dramatic effect, the point being that when you are getting bombed or shot at, you only know or care about the side of the battle you are on.

There’s not much plot, either. Nor is there much backstory to the characters, with flashbacks or the reading of letters or voice overs from loved ones.

The film simply follows the experiences of a soldier (Fionn Whitehead), a pilot (Tom Hardy) and a civilian skipper (Mark Rylance), one of thousands who took their tiny, undefended vessels into a war zone to rescue as many soldiers as they could.

As we saw with All Is Lost, this risky device of deliberately witholding character information, when done well, serves to shrink the distance between you and the people on screen. In Dunkirk it has the effect of making you feel like you are just stuck with the men the whole time, that their experience is your experience.

As terrific as Nolan’s previous films – Interstellar; the Dark Knight trilogy; Inception; Memento – have been, this is the first time he’s taken such a big risk on such a big film. And he pulls it off spendidly.

And though he clearly had the budget and resources at his disposal to make one, Dunkirk is not a traditional “boom crash” war film where the emphasis is on spectacle and scale.

Indeed, it’s a remarkably intimate film, with the scale of the event – ships, lines of men, burning cities – kept mainly in the background as the soldiers are kept front and centre. Again proving himself one of the best composers of big-screen images – Dunkirk was shot in 70mm using IMAX cameras – Nolan gets the sense of scale across without needing to push it in your face.

That said, the film’s battle sequences are staged with unnerving veracity and immediacy.

The sound of bullets as they tear through metal and men pierce the eardrums; the power of bombs as they shatter piers and vessels is so intense you almost feel the shock waves as they detonate.

The film’s aerial battles involved using real planes, not models or digital renderings. Nolan and his team clearly studied gun camera footage of WW2 dogfights and have replicated them with great realism.

And Nolan proves himself a masterful director of life-and-death tension. After seeing Dunkirk, you’ll certainly know what it feels like to be stuck inside a ship when it is struck by a torpedo, or shot at with a machine gun.

Admirably, Nolan achieves this degree of veracity without needing to replicate the graphic detail we saw in Steven Spielberg’s classic Saving Private Ryan. That, alone, is some achievement.

Playing against the tradition of grand war movie spectacle, there is a haunting, painterly quality to much of the film’s outstanding cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot Nolan’s Interstellar).

Often the screen will feature just one or two elements – a plane, a ship, a soldier – against a vast background of either sea or sky.

Some scenes on the beach are especially evocative. In one simple shot, the camera pans with a soldier as he stands up and walks towards a group of other men on the shore, who are made tiny by perspective. Such carefully crafted understatement gives us a powerful sense of just how wide the beach was, and how vulnerable all those men were.

Cynics might accuse the film of being a well-disguised, magnificently made flag waver extolling the cliched virtues of British pluck, fortitude against huge odds, the stiff upper lip, and so forth. Yet in only one scene does Nolan step over that mark. For the most part the film simply pays tribute to a moral truth, that the British people stood hard and fast – and alone – in their darkest hour against a determined enemy. If those values are now cliches, the film shows how they were earned.

As a filmmaker Nolan has become widely respected for deploying all the tricks and toys of modern technology while embracing old-school values of uncluttered storytelling, vivid characterisations and shooting on film.

He has long proved a master of both worlds, yet with Dunkirk he adds more personal and impressonistic depth to his cinematic palette. It’s easy to argue Dunkirk as being his best film because it’s the one that draws his audience in the closest.

The film is intended to be a big-screen experience and was previewed at IMAX, where it looked absolutely incredible.

It’ll be a pleasant surprise if we see a film as good as this during the rest of the year. And it’ll be an unpleasant shock if we don’t see Dunkirk all over the next Oscar nominations list.

Mark it down as a must-see.

HEAR THE 3AW's JIM SCHEMBRI REVIEW