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Given the trend for ‘historic’ films covering more and more contemporary issues, it’s testimony to the Second World War’s place in public consciousness that there is room for yet another film on the subject. Dunkirk’s minimal narrative assumes its audience knows the subject, and the film relies more on atmospherics, managing to conjure claustrophobia, palpable fear and unbearable tension within minutes of opening.

Director Christopher Nolan illustrates the apparent hopelessness on the beaches contrasted with hope burning bright in the captains of the now legendary little boats that rallied to the call. Scenes of soldiers in orderly lines evoke abject terror as enemy aircraft strafe the coast, and in event after event, it is apparent no one is safe even on board the waiting ships. So much is obscured from view as boats are compromised and capsize, that the audience is left to fill in the gaps – and the result is terrifying. The confusion, muffled sounds and cries, make for an uncomfortable viewing.

As troops wait to be “picked off like fish in a barrel”, we flit back to three Spitfire pilots racing across the Channel to support the evacuation effort, and one of the little boats plotting its course towards Dunkirk. I
can’t resist a broad smile as the captain quips, as Spitfires pass overhead, “Rolls-Royce Merlin engines- the best sound in the world”. I think any aviation enthusiast would agree: the sound of a Spitfire is certainly
evocative – and to the troops waiting on the beach, it is the sound of hope.

Nolan’s past collaborator Hans Zimmer provides an evocative, atmospheric soundtrack, using synth style in the vein of Chariots of Fire, or Tron Legacy, and blending it with orchestral tradition familiar to lovers
of war cinema. The result is a score that starts with brevity and builds the viewer up to patriotic fare, that slips in so seamlessly and subtly.

By the closing scenes, the sight of a Spitfire gracefully force-landing on the beach as a Nimrod-esque piece plays is too much for me. I go from misty-eyed to weeping. It might be something about being ex-military and an aviator. It could be “an English thing”. I’d happily stake it is more to do with the makings of a hallmark war film – free from judgement, capturing the spirit of the hour. Dunkirk turns defeat into triumph.

Fiona Smith is Events and Administration Officer at Bright Blue