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From the disaster of Dunkirk comes a triumph of a movie

Dunkirk (12A)

Rating:

The mass evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940 has received pretty scant cinematic attention down the decades, unlike D-Day four years later.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s unconventional but gripping film helps, magnificently, to redress the balance.

Its main achievement, contrary to some over-excited reports, is not to offer proof that the One Direction boy-band star Harry Styles, making his screen debut, can really act.

Rather, it is to show why a French place-name that has become synonymous with British stoicism (read enough reports of townsfolk battling against rising floodwaters, for example, and it won’t be too long before you come across the evocative phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’) more accurately represents what Winston Churchill called a ‘colossal military disaster’.

My tear ducts were also pricked when Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander, pictured, first spots salvation in the form of all those fishing-boats and pleasure craft

My tear ducts were also pricked when Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander, pictured, first spots salvation in the form of all those fishing-boats and pleasure craft

Churchill’s famous bulldog exhortation to fight on the beaches, in the fields and the streets, was delivered in response to Dunkirk. But the same speech included the declaration that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. Nolan uses that line as his mantra. From the film’s first frame to its last, there is never any doubt that we are witnessing something catastrophic.

In that context it’s not Dunkirk’s doughty heroism that is most moving – though there is plenty of it, not least from Mark Rylance as one of the many civilian skippers who sailed their little boats across the Channel to help the evacuation effort – but the vivid depiction of an intense will to live, against seemingly insuperable odds.

I was moved to actual tears twice, once when an elderly blind man, back in Blighty, welcomes home the bedraggled returning soldiers by telling them ‘well done’. But all they did, one of them responds, was survive. ‘That’s enough,’ says the old man.

My tear ducts were also pricked when Kenneth Branagh’s naval commander first spots salvation in the form of all those fishing-boats and pleasure craft.

Its main achievement, contrary to some over-excited reports, is not to offer proof that the One Direction boy-band star Harry Styles, pictured left, making his screen debut, can really act. Rather, it is to show why a French place-name that has become synonymous with British stoicism more accurately represents what Winston Churchill called a ‘colossal military disaster’

Its main achievement, contrary to some over-excited reports, is not to offer proof that the One Direction boy-band star Harry Styles, pictured left, making his screen debut, can really act. Rather, it is to show why a French place-name that has become synonymous with British stoicism more accurately represents what Winston Churchill called a ‘colossal military disaster’

Yet the film does not feel manipulative. Indeed, Nolan could have made more of his opening shot of the rescuing flotilla. It could have been breathtaking; thousands of boats bobbing all the way to the horizon. But he keeps it real, with a suitably motley but relatively small advance fleet.

Astutely, Nolan also offers us a series of small, personal dramas rather than any overall narrative thread, which I suppose is precisely what war is.

So there are no scenes with Churchill and his top brass back in Whitehall trying to orchestrate what was known,

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