Christopher Nolan is arguably the foremost British director of his generation, certainly when it comes to visionary blockbusters.
As such, it seems strange that he should follow the – literal – universality of 2014’s Interstellar with a film that seems, on the face of it, so self-contained; parochial even.
As an account of how close to four hundred thousand British soldiers were evacuated from the coast of France circa May 1940, Dunkirk instead stakes a claim on even more ambitious dramatic/thematic territory; namely the limits of cinema to recreate human experience.
Francis Ford Coppola famously said of Apocalypse Now that, “My movie is Vietnam.” Where that film was a product of chaos – its leading man nearly died during filming – Dunkirk is instead a flawlessly orchestrated exploration of what took place on those exposed sands, upon the changeable waters of The Channel, and in the (surprisingly empty) skies above.
Having barely avoided getting shot to pieces in the nearby town of Dunkirk, young British private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) finds himself stranded on the shore, and with the full might of the German army threatening to materialise at any moment. Thrown together with new compatriots – including Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and, yes, Harry Styles – he sets about expeditiously trying to escape the beach. Meanwhile, with British Destroyers being sunk in the shallow waters, a random flotilla of civilian ships are making their way over from Britain to lend aid. Among them is The Moonstone under the command of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance); accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and school friend George (Barry Keoghan), both insistent on doing their bit. Overhead, a trio of Spitfires including RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) seek to thwart the efforts of the German bombers to rain destruction upon them.
In this, the film captures the full scope of the evacuation, by land, by sea, and by air, as seen from the perspective of a few individuals across three different time-frames, which concertina around a few key shared events. Tommy struggles to board and aboard a series of military vessels, barely surviving over the course of a week, while, in near enough real-time, Farrier keeps calculations on his cockpit dashboard in chalk as to his remaining fuel. A master of structure in any genre, Nolan expertly cuts these narratives so that they dovetail perfectly; generating tension in contrasting ways. The overall effect is to condense an epic adventure-thriller into one-and-three-quarter hours – the director’s shortest film since his debut, Following, 19 years ago.
Less gratuitous than, say, Saving Private Ryan – which opens with Allied troops trying to make it onto a beach in France – Dunkirk is more invested in what these characters underwent from moment to moment; as much simulation as narrative. With such minimal dialogue, and complete lack of back-story,1 the film’s ensemble could seem like simple archetypes were we not so invested in their motivation; which is, in the case of Tommy and all those on the beach, simply to make it home.
Shot, where possible, on the beaches of Dunkirk, there’s a rawness and immediacy to it that feels like living history. Hans Zimmer’s score, for instance, hits you with sensory overload – whining, blaring, buzzing – while never losing the underlying classical composition. The whole crew devote their full and considerable skills to putting you right in the midst of the jarring action and harrowing uncertainty. You hunker down on the mole, a white-wood and grey-stone breakwater projecting out into the sea, an obvious target, or take your chances on a boat, if you can; any of which could easily become a watery grave.
That the breakwater was built for real suggests a touch of early Werner Herzog to Nolan’s methods, venturing into the jungle for Aguirre, the Wrath of God or dragging the steamboat up the mountain for real in Fitzcaraldo – as much as Coppola or Kubrick, Nolan’s most frequent comparison – but accompanied with enormous technical precision. There’s a desire for rough-hewn authenticity that suggests a fundamental respect for the medium of film – as well as, of course, what these men underwent – which belies the polish that has clearly gone into every aspect of production.
Apart from the presence of the doughty Commander Bolton – his stoically compassionate performance as whom would have guaranteed Kenneth Branagh a knighthood did he not already have one – and his second in command, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), there seems to be little visible support for these men, for whom the exposed, flat, white sand and mere twenty-six miles of impassable water become a sort of nightmarish purgatory. A purgatory in which one might hear a whine above and tilt one’s head to see, at any time, a distant Luftwaffe suddenly visible against a white cloud, descending towards you like death incarnate.
Not even the dead can escape: Winnant is horrified at the thought of the rising tide bringing with it bodies to join those already martialed along the shoreline; increasingly submerged beneath the sweeping sand or the advance of scummy, tapioca sea-foam.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s greatest triumph on the film, perhaps in his career as a cinematographer, is in capturing the unpredictability of those waves; lapping mercurially in one scene, churned into choppy grey breakers the next. When flooding the compartments of a sinking vessel that same water brings to mind the words Wilfred Owen: “Under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” Amid this, Nolan seizes on some truly haunting images: a young soldier clutching his ears and screaming beneath the blue-green surface; a lone survivor, the shellshocked Shivering Man (Cillian Murphy sat beside the propeller on the dark metal aft of a sunken ship.
When viewed from above, a trawler sunk in the Channel looks almost like a toy submerged it a tub; were it not that tiny figures, often too few, can occasionally be seen clambering across them, trying to escape their deadly pull. A dark plume of smoke that rises from the coast serves as a reference point for both those on the sea and in the air.
While in parts almost documentarian in its style2, as with all Nolan’s films, there’s an undervalued emotive quality to Dunkirk. Where in Interstellar this overwhelmed the logic of the plot, here its honed to a hard poetic edge. Farrier’s travails above the clouds brought to mind a less fatalistic “An Irish Airman Foresees Death”.
Hardy, from beneath a pilot’s mask and helmet, once again proves his ingenuity as an actor; conveying the full weight of Farrier’s realisation of his fuel supply dwindling as he seeks time and again to prevent the enemy from mounting an assault on the men and ships below. The faces of him and his fellow pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden), subtly unfocus during moments of tension; a perfectly organic reminder of the lack of oxygen that exists both for them and us.
The least effective strand is that of The Moonstone, which suffers from a relative lack of incident; if only because it feels like they are kept largely in something of a holding pattern till the other two narratives requires them to intercede.
Nevertheless, it’s testament to Nolan’s ambition and discipline as a filmmaker that Dunkirk is, on the whole, perhaps as impactful a dramatisation of the Second World War – perhaps cinematically the most dramatised period in all history – as any ever attempted. No film is a war, no matter the logistics of its production, but Dunkirk comes perhaps as close as cinema can to exposing you to the “reality” of it.
The film succeeds foremost in making its tagline – “Survival is victory” – seem like more than a platitude; snatching a desperate victory from the jaws of defeat. A shot of helmets abandoned in the sand seems, as such, strangely dignified and triumphant: as if to say, “We will return”; as well, of course, we did.
Dunkirk is every bit as good as I hoped it would be3 and, if holds up in the memory, it was may prove the most confident and striking of Nolan’s whole canon. Only time will tell.
- And with it a complete lack of cliche: no folded family photos to be silently gazed at in a moment of restfulness or miniature Bibles in the breast pocket, perfectly positioned to intercept a bullet.
- Battle Of Algiers, eat your b-&-w, vérité heart out.
- In that regard, the sheer craftmanship and specificity of tone reminded me of The Master.