The little boats of Britain

There are war movies and there are war movies. One school, exemplified by Mel Gibson’s overdone Hacksaw Ridge (a movie that plays like the visceral opening scene from Saving Private Ryan extended to feature length) I would classify as “war porn.” Playing with toy soldiers. Still, it’s why some people go to the movies.

Compare that to this instant WWII classic from writer/director Christopher Nolan at the height of his storytelling powers. Nolan, who has given us Memento, Inception and the three best Batman movies, manages to generate the same level of fear and dread with a fraction of the gore.

It is of course the story of how thousands of English pleasure boats were mobilized during the early days of the war to rescue as many as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers backed up to the sea by overwhelming Nazi forces.

This impressionist masterpiece doesn’t so much tell the story as immerse you in it. Its effectiveness comes not through spectacle, but from many private moments as Nolan cuts among a half dozen interwoven plots. The limitations on gratuitous gore don’t make it any less real. There’s no star.

That’s not to say it’s dull. The hammering intensity never lets up, but it has a spine. And a soul. It’s harrowing but smart, ambitious and intimate; an emotional and visual roller coaster. Pure Nolan.

Cast includes Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and a host of talented lesser-knowns. And the unbelievable cinematography just may justify the IMAX treatment. (106 min)