Dunkirk, released in 2004, recounts the WWII story of the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940 – the biggest in military history – which saw a third of a million Allied soldiers rescued over only ten days to save them from the ever-encroaching advance of the German army during the bloody battle for France. Tough decisions had to be taken by British and French High Command to minimise lives lost, which is recreated in this depiction. Dunkirk follows the board room diplomacy of the military officers who oversaw the retreat, as well as the Allied soldiers caught in the thick of the fighting in France. It was the closest the Allies came to losing the war, and Dunkirk captures the drama on the ground and behind closed doors of a major conflict hanging in the balance.
This drama-documentary consists of three hour-long episodes that follow the unfolding evacuation from multiple points of view. The action is split between the War Office and the stories of individual soldiers in France. The strands are linked together by voiceovers (actors recite actual source material such as letters and diaries), archive footage of the events and key players, as well as narration by the magisterial Timothy Dalton, who adds gravitas as well as a documentary feel to proceedings.
The account is told mostly from the point-of-view of the Allies. Apart from in stock footage, we don’t see Hitler or the SS at all. The German soldiers we do see along the way aren’t humanised but invariably depicted (not inaccurately) as ruthless. The most jarring thing about the production for modern viewers is the digital medium it’s shot on, which admittedly makes it look fresh and lends a sense of immediacy, working in favour of the documentary feel, but also makes a reasonably high-budget production look cheap. Film may have been prohibitively expensive at the time, but the picture quality dates it.
The cast is, on the whole, excellent. There are one or two unconvincing turns from bit-part soldiers, especially in the slightly overdrawn first episode, but as the scripts focus more and more on certain individuals, the problem lessens. Simon Russell Beale is a standout as Winston Churchill, adopting something of the distinctive speech patterns of Britain’s war leader, but he plays the part with great truth and intensity. Kevin McNally, recently seen on the other side of the pond in TURN, and soon to take on the role of King Lear at the Globe Theatre, provides excellent support as Major General Alexander. The final episode also sees a performance from the inexplicably popular Benedict Cumberbatch as a soldier caught in a difficult moral dilemma. Fans of Timothy Dalton will enjoy the actor’s dour nuance in describing the unfolding events.
There are some superb moments in Dunkirk, such as the astonishing scenes when British soldiers are rounded up by the Nazis in the opening episode and for a long time their fate hangs in the balance. It becomes almost unbearably tense.
Overall, Dunkirk is well worth revisiting or discovering for the first time. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in WWII and in credibly-researched and presented accounts of significant periods in the fight against fascism. The household names in the cast will widen the appeal of the series. The success of the series lies in its ability to merge historicity and human drama without compromising either.
Cast: Timothy Dalton, Simon Russell Beale, Kevin McNally, Benedict Cumberbatch Director: Alex Holmes Writer: Alex Holmes, Neil McKay, Lisa Osborne Certificate: 15 Duration: 180 mins Released By: Arrow Films Release Date: 10th July 2017