“War is hell,” and in the hands of Christopher Nolan, rarely has that hell ever been shown with such humanity and authentic struggle. Taking on the infamous Dunkirk beach evacuation of 1940. The retreating British and French soldiers – surrounded by enemy Germans – found themselves trapped and cornered in the city of Dunkirk with their backs against the expanse of the Channel, so close to home, and yet so far away. It is that sense of fear, fatigue and defeat amongst the soldiers caught up in the horrific setting that Christopher Nolan focuses on in his presentation of this military disaster.
In now expected Nolan style the film takes on the story in innovative fashion, structuring it across three different overlapping timelines all eventually converging to the same point. The first part is titled ‘The Mole’ (taking place over one week), focusing on the narrow docking point that the navy’s evacuation ships were forced to use to pick up the stranded soldiers. The second timeline is ‘The Sea’ (taking place over one day), focusing in on the privately owned boats – commandeered by the Navy – which answered the call to make the perilous crossing of the channel, and into the battle to help transport the soldiers. Finally, there’s ‘The Air’ (taking place over one hour), taking us into the cockpits of the small band of RAF pilots tasked with fending off the swarming Luftwaffe who were circling the stranded allied forces, trying to pick them off and deliver a final hammer blow to their foes.
The scope is challenging and the differing timelines could prove confusing if it weren’t in the hands of the master of temporal timeline storytelling and directing. Only a director who’s taken on challenges like the amnesiac reverse timeline of Memento; the theoretical space-time narrative of Interstellar, or the complex dream-weaving vision of Inception, could even contemplate presenting this story in the fashion it’s presented in here. Moving from character to character, and story to story whilst crossing and overlapping timelines could so easily be a complex mess but, in the hands of Nolan, is instead a thing of beauty. This is a film with a vast scope, a mesmeric sense of drama, and coupled with Hans Zimmer’s gripping and atmospheric score, creates an intense and all consuming viewing experience. It’s gripping throughout, even during the rare lulls in proceedings, and with such a captivating creation of authentic human drama taking place on screen, it’s almost impossible not to be invested in the respective narratives that combine to make the whole.
From the moments the first gunshots ring out on the deserted streets of Dunkirk where we first meet one of our principal protagonists, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the effect is one of jolting alertness. It’s an effect that doesn’t relent as the film moves from scene to scene, with every subsequent scene carrying the continued sense of imminent danger. Further to this, the lack of anything but sparse and direct dialogue means that this film and its action, drama and threat, is largely carried by the dual-soundtrack of the sounds of war accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s mesmeric soundtrack which moves from moments of clock-ticking staccato, underpinned by rumbling, threatening bass tones to soaring orchestral manoeuvres. The impact is devastating in its overall aural effect on the viewer leaving you ducking and dodging the whistling bullets, whilst dreading the next time the score cuts out to signal the slow whining arrival of another bomber diving in to attack.
After game changing modern war films such as Saving Private Ryan and the Thin Red Line (both 1998), our interpretation of the Second World War and war films as a genre has changed. In those films, as with this one, the focus became about the harrowing individual experience in the midst of the wider horrors of battle. Spielberg’s graphic and impactful opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan – showing the individual horror faced by the landing soldiers at Normandy – has become one of the most lasting and visually arresting pieces of modern cinema. Dunkirk doesn’t have the graphic brutality of that sequence, instead it shows a different kind of horror but still with that same sense of fear amidst the haunting human struggle. Where Spielberg has a soldier wandering the beach in a daze looking for and picking up his own severed arm to represent the horror in microcosm, Nolan shows a soldier – in his despondency and desperation – removing his kit and walking into the sea, perhaps in a vain and desperate last ditch attempt to get home, or maybe more bleakly, just to drown himself. Whatever his intention, his actions are just met with blank resignation from Tommy and his fellow soldiers on the beach, so familiar are they with such levels of despondency and despair. Their lack of any real reaction poignantly represents the state of mind that battle had left them in.
It is this human aspect which perhaps makes this film so strong, whilst there are details and historical inaccuracies that can be discussed, the core of this film is with the intimate human struggle. The sense of duty, the sense of responsibility and subsequent failure these men felt following the order to retreat is at the heart of this film. As Alex – playedin pleasantly unjarring fashion by former One Direction member Harry Styles – utters to Mr Dawson’s son on the boat home, “we’ve let you down, haven’t we?” This kind of genuine, heartfelt reaction was symptomatic of so many of the young men who returned feeling despondent and defeated from Dunkirk, and Nolan has captured it with striking honesty. Closely associated to that feeling and another aspect presented so markedly by Nolan, is the sheer youth of so many of the soldiers trapped on that beach, many of whom were little more than boys straight out of school. The combination of youth, fear in the face of terrifying adversity and an individual and collective sense of failed duty is all brought together in Nolan’s vision and presented honestly and poignantly by the actors portraying them.
This is a film without heroic sheen and glamour, or overly stylized battle scenes, every frame of this feature – whilst stunningly captured in 70mm IMAX film by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema – is rendered all the more powerful in its stark, matter-of-fact-ness. This was the business of war, this was the business of survival, there is no sheen. Even the heroic antics of Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, Farrier, are viewed through the lens of a man going to work. Hardy – often using just his eyes for emotion behind his mask – says more in the focused and determined actions of his flying and shooting than any dialogue could provide. And even as one of the film’s principal heroes, his personal finale is still one of ultimate capture, leaving a searingly powerful reminder of the war these men fought and the danger they faced down with valour and bravery.
That’s all without mentioning the representation of the home front in Mark Rylance’s quietly patriotic Mr Dawson, who with marked bravery – like countless others who answered the call for assistance – piloted his small boat into the danger of battle purely because it was his duty, and it was the right thing to do. This isn’t Hollywood heroes, this is real world heroes, serving and doing their duty for a cause. They wanted nothing for it, they have no ready made quips and one liners, they were just people getting through the war as best they could. As Mr Dawson himself puts it, “we got a job to do” and the later “there ain’t no hiding from this son.”
Nolan’s signature timelines and structural creativity, has come to be a familiar aspect of his films. Memento (2000), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014) are examples of his interest in playing with expected structure, and his innovative direction and editing leaves the audience not entirely sure of time, place, or where they are in relation to the action in his films. They are placed out of linear time and space, and when viewed in the spectacle that is IMAX (where this film truly comes into its own), with the shock and awe of whirring engines and explosions and dropping bombs, the effect is to further that sense of uncertainty and confusion. Nolan places you alongside his protagonists who, amidst the ensuing chaos of the evacuation and fighting, are equally lost to time and space.
When cinema is undergoing fads like the recent arrival of 4DX in a flawed attempt to somehow make its audience feel more connected with the action of the film, Nolan shows how you can manage the same effect with skillfully structured cinema, and carefully considered editorial techniques. You don’t need wind and fog machines or vibrating seats to feel placed within the unfolding action or more intimately connected to this film; Nolan’s direction puts you there, front and centre. It’s that skill that is perhaps his most powerful achievement in the making of Dunkirk.
Viewed as Nolan intended it to be seen on the aforementioned 70mm IMAX, the film becomes a truly visceral experience, wide landscape shots take up your entire field of vision – particularly in the cockpit shots during the aerial dogfights, or from Mr Dawson’s little boat. The vastness of even this relatively small stretch of water gives the action a sense of real scope. It creates a vast backdrop to the individual small battles for survival taking place across the three timelines. We are positioned right in the midst of the action and then removed again and shown the same action from a different viewpoint and shown how small this drama seems against the wider scope of battle. These men are literally fighting and scrapping for survival, just longing to get to the relative safety of home, and yet when we’re shown the sheer grandiosity of the seascapes surrounding them, it creates a sense of the cruel futility of war. They may well be fighting for their lives, yet nature just continues on around them oblivious to their mortal battle.
This futility is furthered into the final shots, set to images of the aftermath of the evacuation, accompanied by the slowed down and powerfully emotive strains of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ we are given Churchill’s famous and stirring “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament. We don’t hear it in the familiar voice of the man himself however, but rather, in the ordinary war-wearied voice of Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, which gives the speech an everyman brevity when placed against the preceding drama. The final shots of Tom Hardy’s plane set ablaze after its heroic antics, only for him to be captured on the beach, cutting back to a final shot of Tommy’s tired eyes contemplating the fact that far from being home and safe, that the hell of war is instead still very much ahead of them, and increasingly on their doorstep. It’s a haunting image, and it’s one that perfectly places us inside the heads of these young men when after the ordeal they’ve just undergone – they are forced to ponder Churchill’s statement that “we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.” It’s a cost they know, that they have seen all too intimately and all too recently for them to contemplate with anything other than a crushing fear, and it’s that powerful image of contemplation that we see seared into Tommy’s eyes as the film cuts to black.
The greatest war films are invariably taken on by director’s working at the peak of their powers, and Nolan can certainly be considered amongst any esteemed list of such war film directors now. From Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) or David Lean’s Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957), there is an illustrious lexicon of work out there dealing with the various aspects of war, and Dunkirk can be considered a worthy addition to the war genre. Whether it goes on to have such a lasting legacy as any of the aforementioned films is yet to be seen, but I certainly feel like it has all the ingredients to. Dunkirk is a magnificent piece of filmmaking; epic and yet intimate, forceful, dramatic and engrossingly edited, with an intense action-leading score, it is really a film from the mind of a master at work. This Summer has seen blockbusters really live up to and exceed expectations, and Dunkirk is perhaps the finest film amongst that list. If you can, see this film in its IMAX format, but if not, just see the film anyway, it truly is an astonishingly good film and an example of what big cinema can be when executed well.