Britain’s great pyrrhic defeat or inverse victory of 1940 has been brought to the screen as a terrifying, shattering spectacle by Christopher Nolan. He plunges you into the chaotic evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from northern France after the catastrophic battle of Dunkirk – helped by the now legendary flotilla of small civilian craft. It is part disaster movie, part compressed war epic, and all horribly appropriate for these Brexit times.
Nolan’s Dunkirk has that kind of blazing big-screen certainty that I last saw in James Cameron’s Titanic or Paul Greengrass’s United 93. It is very different to his previous feature, the bafflingly overhyped sci-fi convolution Interstellar. This is a powerful, superbly crafted film with a story to tell, avoiding war porn in favour of something desolate and apocalyptic, a beachscape of shame, littered with soldiers zombified with defeat, a grimly male world with hardly any women on screen.
It is Nolan’s best film so far. It also has Hans Zimmer’s best musical score: an eerie, keening, groaning accompaniment to a nightmare, switching finally to quasi-Elgar variations for the deliverance itself. Zimmer creates a continuous pantonal lament, which imitates the dive bomber scream and queasy turning of the tides, and it works in counterpoint to the deafening artillery and machine-gun fire that pretty much took the fillings out of my teeth and sent them in a shrapnel fusillade all over the cinema auditorium.