Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk is not a masterpiece. However, it is a meticulously executed, powerfully immersive experience that drops you inexplicably into the Dunkirk evacuation and never relieves you till its own participants are out of danger. It is also the culmination of Nolan’s progression as a director, the slow honing of sound, structure and scale that we have seen developing in his previous work. For Nolan’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker is to create spectacle with the cinematic size and force of a tidal wave and the narrative intricacy of the mechanics in a music box. The experience often engulfs you; takes your breath away in its audacity, synchronicity and sleight of hand. But after the experience has settled down, we are left with so little to grasp onto. Such is the case with Dunkirk- it is terrifying and visceral yet exhausting in its excess and lack of depth.
1940. The Mole– British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) comes to the dead-end of Dunkirk beach in the Allied retreat from France. With the Enemy forces at their back, he alongside the 400,000 men stranded on the shore are looking for any way back over to the home they can almost see. With the British government only committed to getting a mere ’30,000’ men out of Dunkirk according to one navy admiral (Kenneth Branagh) the chances of escape are slim. The Sea– with the government requisitioning civilian naval vessels, one sailor (Mark Rylance) and his teenager sons (Barry Keoghan and Tom Glynn-Carney) decide to risk crossing the Channel under German fire to rescue the men from the beach and the sea. They come face-to-face with the physical and psychological damage of the evacuation when they discover a surviving soldier (Cillian Murphy) who longs for them to turn back. The Air- as German aircraft lay waste to the beach and the rescue boats, it is up to RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) to hold back the bombers from destroying the one desperate hope those at Dunkirk have. Taking place over a week, a day and an hour, these multiple strands of time converge into one of the most disastrous and seemingly miraculous moments in the Second World War.
The startling power of Dunkirk is in its sustained, nerve-wracking immediacy and urgency. A conventional opening crawl might set context, but Nolan breaks into it with action from the opening sequence- British soldiers foraging through the deserted Dunkirk town. This introduction establishes quickly that there is no wider sense of history here- we are being brought into the ‘event’ with little elaboration or detail. This is a situation that is happening right now- in real-time– with an apt ticking clock underneath it all. Nolan combines this with an expanding and contracting sense of scale, with Hoyte van Hoyetema’s cinematography producing absolute, diminutive exposure under wide, sweeping shots of beach and ocean (joined in moments at the horizon in an awesome expanse) and the noisy, compact plane cockpits and boat holds that while safer, feel dangerous and claustrophobic.
Hans Zimmer’s compositions swell to unbelievable proportions as they fuse with the sound of piercing bullets and German Stuka diver bombers descending on vulnerable lines of troops. The three narratives stack up against or fall away from each other- as Nolan’s fascination for relativity of time, previously seen as far back as Memento in Nolan’s body of work, resurfaces here. All of this forms an unrelenting, at times disorientating, assault on the senses that rarely lets up. The quieter moments when two privates bury a fellow soldier; a soldier wanders desperately into the waves to swim to England; Murphy’s traumatised lieutenant clinging desperately to Rylance’s boat, are haunting images that hold in the numbing haze of a choppy sea-like green-grey palette. It is a tour de force of palpable desperation and despair as exploding bombs draw closer to the foreground or the suffocating darkness of the sea engulfs the frame.
With Nolan having little concern for building characters- many of the participants go simply unnamed- it is left to Whitehead, Murphy, Hardy and Harry Styles (in his debut performance) to realise the physical and psychological trauma of the event as individuals. Considering the exhilarating but frighteningly realistic dog-fights, the believable paranoia and self-preservation of the soldiers (Whitehead’s constant refrain of ‘I want to get home’ begins aspirational but soon becomes justification for his increasingly immoral actions) when they find themselves under enemy fire or in sinking vessels, we come to invest in them despite their lack of exposition or development. Strangely, however, I never felt a real sense that the main players were in life-threatening jeopardy and those that do die remain somewhat indistinguishable and inconsequential. The lack of exposition does not work entirely well with Rylance’s character however (who is later given obvious sentimental motivation for his mission) nor Branagh’s rather stereotypically stoic admiral. Hardy, kept behind a mask (again) maybe brisk and accurately matter-of-fact with his RAF pilot jargon, but he too offers us very little when our only emotional investment is in his mission’s success.
While trying to convince us this is more of a survival than a historical drama, devoid of political and national bias due to its rampant terror and un-embellished characters, there still remains a stalwart, stoic patriotism that marks the event as an instance of exclusively British fortitude and success- that ‘Dunkirk spirit’ manufactured after the event. Churchill’s declaration that ‘the wars are not won by evacuations’ , that is read by Whitehead, feels uncharitable, even cruel, next to the suffering we’ve seen these men endure. The final sequence with Hardy’s plane descending heroically under clear sunset skies and empty shoreline; Zimmer’s music releasing Elgar’s nostalgic Nimrod: Variations; and the soldiers’ discarded helmets strewn neatly across the sands, reminiscent of Nolan’s opening shot in The Prestige, divert away from the many historical complexities that Dunkirk won’t confront or portray (for instance, the role and fate of the French and British rearguard, the presence of colonial soldiers from India and Africa, and the humiliation and defeatism in the surviving troops when they returned to Britain).
Many will argue that Dunkirk is not a documentary and clearly Nolan is not as concerned with historical fidelity as providing an intense ‘reality’ to the limited vantages he uses. Yet in those weaker moments, Dunkirk drops its tactile realism to turn back to the romanticised mythology of the Dunkirk evacuation that has been written ever since the British media propagandised the event in its immediate aftermath. All historical films are guilty of omission, of simplification to a greater or lesser extent, but Nolan overstates his capacity to ignore his own biases. Zimmer is another major issue. When working in tandem with designer Richard King’s invasive, disturbing soundscape his compositions have both operatic and intimate intensity. However, this soon devolves into an overwhelming barrage of discordant noise that only frustrated and exhausted me. The unity of all the elements mentioned earlier suffers at times as their combined effect collapses due to their excessive, unrestrained energy. Its as if Nolan is not always fully in control of his picture, struggling at the instruments. The stuttering narratives can be confusing, with the reasoning for using this form somewhat suspect, perhaps even just a matter of creative indulgence. It also raises the uncomfortable question of whether Dunkirk retrospectively becomes less about our understanding the grim realities of the historical event than admiring the cumulative result of Nolan’s career thus far.
Defying easy comparison with recent entries in the war movie genre (such as Fury and Hacksaw Ridge), the nearest film experience I can make to Dunkirk is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Like Cuarón’s suspense space thriller, Dunkirk is an experience made for the cinema- its volume of sound, scale, its revolving camera movements, require the venue screen and surround sound to immerse you fully in the midst of its chaos. But also like Gravity, the spectacle often overcomes our tendency to reflect, explore, empathise and challenge more deeply as members of the audience. Perhaps in Dunkirk’s favour, though it is also a fault, I feel we have gone through a harrowing experience that just leaves you numbed in both senses and thought, grateful to have made it out.