Dunkirk is budgeted at $100 million dollars and distributed by the American company Warner Bros. Pictures telling the very British tale of the evacuation from Dunkirk during World War II before America entered the war. It was shot across four countries including on location at the site of the historical event with up to 6,000 extras. The sinking of a ship sequence involved fifty stuntmen. Actual Supermarine Spitfires, close to 80-year-olds and on loan from the Imperial War Museum, feature in flying sequences. 60 boats were located by Marine Coordinator Neil Andrea to appear in the movie including a 3,000-ton former French destroyer and three retired Dutch Naval vessels reconfigured to give the appearance of World War II era Royal Navy ships. The bulk of the film was shot in 65mm IMAX, and while there are recognisable actors in the film, there are no film stars in it. There are maybe five directors working today who could shoot on this scale, and it would be a tragic waste if the resulting movie were not compelling and engaging. Despite the scale though director Christopher Nolan has arguably made his most precise and restrained work in years and in doing so maybe also his most affecting.

In a cold opening, we meet a squad of British soldiers making their way through town to the beach where 400,000 men are awaiting salvation having been routed by the German military to the edge of continental Europe. A major historical event, the film is told from three different perspectives focusing on individuals rather than commentary and strategy. The reality for these characters is the threat of death is near, and their only interest is in finding a way to survive. This is a story told from an intimate point of view where nobody has an easy answer or is a straightforward hero or coward. If character is defined by action then despite minimal dialogue we get to know these men very well. They include a young squaddie just looking for a way to get on a ship and get home and friendship he strikes up with a similarly minded soldier on the beach. In the air, Tom Hardy plays an RAF fighter pilot providing air cover for the ships against the Luftwaffe’s superior numbers, concerned as much with his fuel gauge as he is with the enemy knowing that one more minute over France could save countless lives. Then there’s Mark Rylance, a simple fisherman who with his young son and another boy has set off to make a difference by crossing the English Channel to pick up as many soldiers as he can in his humble boat. The closer they get to war the more foolhardy his decision seems and the more admirable.

Not much context or back story is given, often that would be a failure on the part of the filmmakers to make fully realised characters, but here it is a deliberate choice that pays off. The soldiers look painfully young like they were in real life and could be any young men we know and care about. In fact, it took several minutes of screen time for a certain pop singer to be recognised and as an actor, he acquits himself well. It could be argued the characters are all types, the narrator, the everyman, the young fool, the coward, the sacrificial lamb but in the hands of this cast and with little choices, they become something more. They become representative of the virtues and foibles of us all and how sometimes we can be both. The three perspectives are told in a non-linear fashion, the air sequences playing out over a shorter period of hours and the beach part taking place over a few days. The beats of each tale though are structured with clock-work precision to play off each other and to build towards a culminating crescendo involving all three.

Technically the film is brilliant, Hans Zimmer’s score adding to the tension throughout by repeating the motif of a ticking clock before giving way to a slightly different rendering of Enigma Variations for a classical sound that can’t help but evoke thoughts of British stalwartness. Director Nolan has always committed to using practical effects where he can and putting spectacle on screen for the BIG screen. CGI has been utilised for sure, and sometimes one could wonder if the whole evacuation involved three ships and four planes, but there is a spectacular scale here and shots that will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. As much care has been given to revealing the fear on faces, invoking the claustrophobia of being below decks in overcrowded ships as there has been to take a wide shot of many small boats or a lone Spitfire gracefully flying low level above the water. As meticulously constructed as the movie is, it also builds quietly to wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Dunkirk was a military disaster that became a morale boosting reprieve, yet for a twenty-year-old kid on that beach in 1940 it boiled down to one thing – wanting to get home alive. It is as simple and as profound as that, and by telling that story, Christopher Nolan has made the most simple and most profound film of his entire career. This is one of the year’s best.