By land, sea and air

Spectacular re-creation of dramatic WWII evacuation

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 5.0

Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary new movie has gotten widespread raves and praise from reviewers and critics. And, somewhat to the surprise of the usual “observers,” it has also done very well at the box office in its opening week.

It’s a riveting tale about a major event from World War II—the 1940 rescue and evacuation of the massive numbers of Allied troops trapped and hemmed in by the German army on the beaches of Dunkirk on the French side of the English Channel. As such, it has great appeal both as a fast-moving, multicharacter action drama and as an artfully complex war film in which the stories of several sets of individual characters are intricately intertwined with each other and with the unfolding events of an epic moment in modern history.

Modest intertitles identify the individual stories. “The Mole” revolves around the struggles of a young British foot soldier (Fionn Whitehead) to bypass the long lines of waiting men and, by hook or by crook, scramble aboard one of the rescue boats (including a very crowded hospital ship) before it departs. He is soon joined by two like-minded young soldiers played by Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles.

“The Sea” involves the efforts of a civilian named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) to put his wooden yacht (“Moonstone”) to work in the rescue effort. Dawson’s son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) is on board as well, as is the latter’s impulsive younger friend George (Barry Keoghan). Their mid-channel rescue of a downed pilot (Cillian Murphy) proves tragic, heroic and ironic—all at once.

“The Air” follows the exploits of a fighter pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and his wingman Collins (Jack Lowden). The scenes of aerial combat are superb, and the final stages of the two pilots’ respective missions are especially dramatic. Farrier’s final actions are both funereal and defiant, a ferocious sign of things to come, and there’s some remarkable poetry in Nolan’s near-fantasy views of Farrier’s Spitfire fighter plane losing power but silently speeding on like some great bird of prey, graceful and unstoppable.

The best performance of all, however, may belong to Kenneth Branagh. He plays Commander Bolton, the British naval officer in charge of the evacuation to the hospital ship who stays on to oversee further evacuations when the civilian vessels arrive. Branagh quietly brings a full range of large-scale emotion to key scenes with little or no dialogue.