Dunkirk; 107 min; Rated PG-13

 

Dunkirk is a stretching expanse of sandy beach on the northernmost tip of France. There is a shallow-water harbor with a long breakwater pier called “the mole.” If you look toward the horizon, just 28 miles across the Strait of Dover, if you squint, you can almost see England and its iconic white cliffs.

Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, before the Battle for Britain, before America entered the war, some 400,000 allied troops — Brits, Canadians, French and Belgians — were gathered on that immense Dunkirk beach, waiting. Most stood in long, ragged lines, others sat at the water’s edge, in the foamy white water. Countless soldiers crowded shoulder to shoulder on the mole, desperately hoping to be ferried out to ships that had yet to arrive.

Behind them, advancing ever closer, was the full might the German army which had already invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and now France. Its objective was to capture or annihilate these men now in full retreat.

And in the grey-blue sky above, often obscured by a hazy sun, were the German Luftwaffe, remorselessly bombing and strafing the exposed soldiers.

This moment in British history is now the stuff of myth. While it was, indisputably, a retreat, a graphic statement of defeat, it was also viewed, in its totality, as heroic, a prelude to events to this day that will never be forgotten.

And it is this moment — a week, a day, an hour — that writer/director Christopher Nolan captures with stunning elegance and sustained tension in his film “Dunkirk.”

Shot in large-format film (not digital), it conveys the feel and the texture of the men, as well as the urgency of their dilemma. The terrifying problem for them, for the officers standing on the mole, for those in England (to include Churchill) was: Is rescue possible?

To simply leave them there was unimaginable and would likely change the course of the war.

Nolan approaches his narrative from three points of view: the beach, the sea and the air. On the beach are the soldiers, their isolation total; in the air are the British Spitfires, especially two whose mission it was to provide defense against the German bombers and Messerschmidts; and on the sea were the ships.

What is remarkable about the sea POV is that a call went out by the English command for help, of any kind. An ad hoc flotilla was quickly assembled — tugs, trawlers, merchant ships, fishing boats, weekender yachts, small motor boats — all leaving England without hesitation, headed for Dunkirk and the stranded troops. Their mission was to ferry the troops to those few waiting ships. Other small craft would return to England directly, laden with desperate, oil- soaked, traumatized soldiers.

Of course, we as Americans know the story of D-Day. Many have seen Steven Spielberg’s astonishingly good “Saving Private Ryan.” And what we know is that the allied troops that landed on those harrowing beaches of France, on that early June, 1944, day, were advancing, headed onto shore and beyond.

It was an army of liberation, prepared to fight a long, deadly battle against fascism. There was dread, every day of the war, shrouded by a carnage that we cannot imagine. But the direction was clear.

Dunkirk involved a different quality of dread, which the film graphically conveys with its minimalist dialogue, its ensemble of actors that are all but indistinguishable, with the exception of naval Commander Bolton, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh, or the two Spitfire pilots who gaze down on the beaches and know that their mission possesses an overwhelming urgency.

What is remarkable about Nolan’s film is that while we are witnessing a stark retreat, we are also bearing witness to astonishing heroism; the two never feel contradictory.

“Dunkirk” is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, its narrative balanced between one hour in the air, one day on the sea and one week on that excruciatingly memorable beach at Dunkirk.