Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
There are some movies that demand to be watched and some that demand to be experienced. Gravity is a good example. I saw Gravity in 3D at the cinema when it first came out in 2013 and I was blown away. The scale, the scope, the sensation, Gravity was a movie that transported me and once it was over I almost felt like I had spent the last couple of hours in space and had just returned. That was four years ago and I haven’t seen the movie since. Unless it’s being screened in a cinema in 3D, there’s just no point. I’ve never even considered going out to buy a DVD because I know that watching it on TV or on my laptop would not do the movie justice. It’s too big, too dynamic, too spectacular. There are some movies that simply must be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Dunkirk is one of those movies.
Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940 evacuation of over 300,000 British soldiers following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans in their invasion and conquest of France. The story is told through three different timelines, all focusing on three different sets of characters with three different goals. The first timeline takes place on land and its events transpire over the course of week. It follows a young private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately trying to escape from the beach by any and all means with the help of fellow soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) while Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to orchestrate the whole evacuation from the Mole (the pier where the soldiers set up their base as they wait for the ships). The second takes place on the sea over the course of a day. It follows Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a mariner who sets sail on his boat with his son and his friend to help with the evacuations. On the way they rescue the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a shipwreck. The third timeline takes place in the air over the course of an hour and it follows Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they take down as many German fighters as they can for as long as the little fuel they have lasts.
I saw this movie in IMAX and the effect is astonishing. There are two things Nolan can do as a director at which he is almost peerless: scale and tension. He excels at depicting large, complex narratives with huge ideas driving them and he can draw his audience to the very edge of their seats and hold them there for what feels like an eternity. Dunkirk allows him to showcase these talents like never before and as I sat there watching it on a screen that was larger than life with sound that engulfed me from every direction, I honestly felt like I was there. From the very first frame we are dropped right into the action as Tommy flees a troop of enemy soldiers and stumbles onto the beach and, in every single moment that follows, the tension never falters for a second. Dunkirk does not feel so much like a war film as it does like a disaster film. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that commands each scene as each character restlessly await the arrival of a rescue party, without any knowledge of when it will arrive or if it will be enough, while dreading the impending arrival of an enemy whose movements are similarly indefinite. This is a race against time for the British army and Nolan does a fantastic job of stressing that motif, not just with his time-jumping structure but also with Hans Zimmer’s score which evokes a ticking clock.
Although the time-jumping structure does work incredibly well for the film, I do wish I’d known about it going in or that the movie had made it clearer that that was the approach they were going for. The only hand-holding the movie gives here is a trio of brief captions naming only the place and the timespan. That by itself would be sufficient if you already knew what they meant, but I hadn’t a clue and was quite disorientated for the 15-20 minutes it took me to work out what was happening. Once I’d figured it out though, I was absolutely mesmerised by the intricacies of how these three stories affected and interacted with each other. There’s one scene where one of the pilots must make an emergency landing in the sea and lets out a wave to his commander, one that he takes to mean all is well. It isn’t until we see that same landing from the perspective of those in the boat that we understand the wave was something else entirely. The structure can also be used for poetic effect, such as in a sequence near the end where the landing of a plane is shown to take as long as the boarding and launching of a naval fleet.
I’ve always liked Nolan more as a director than as a writer because I’ve found that his dialogue is often too contrived and expository and his characters too flat and artificial. With Dunkirk though it would seem that Nolan has gone out of his way to avoid these pitfalls and it works out wonderfully. The movie’s use of dialogue is so minimal that it could have almost been a silent movie (if not for the deafening sounds of planes, gunfire and explosions). The bond between Tommy and Gibson is one that goes almost entirely unspoken; theirs is a comradeship built on a recognition that they are stuck in the same hell and need to help each other and it is expressed through actions and gestures. The movie follows the example set by Malick’s The Thin Red Line by treating its characters more as units of a whole rather than as individuals. They’re all struggling together and the film is only interested in their personalities and individual plights insofar as they relate to the larger crisis. It is therefore a testament to the fine acting at work and the carefully chosen lines of dialogue they are given that we are able to feel so strongly for these characters and fear for their survival.
As opposed to most 20th century conflicts, the Second World War is one that the Brits and Americans often look back on with a selective, venerated memory. Dunkirk in particular proved to be an event of symbolic significance to Britain as it appealed to their perception of themselves as the steadfast underdog fighting against evil and adversity. Nolan has sought to depict a demythologised version of Dunkirk. He does not do this however by showing the graphic brutalities of war with blood and guts flying all over the place the way they were in Hacksaw Ridge. He chooses instead to portray the emotional turmoil of all those involved in the evacuations; the despair of the soldiers stranded in a foreboding warzone, the anxiety of not knowing whether or when rescue or ruin would come, the cold and utter shame of their defeat. It is also significant that, while the threat of the German army is ever present, we seldom see the German soldiers and, even then, only at a distance. The film isn’t interested in portraying them as villains because that’s not what the story is about. It’s about these soldiers and the arduous trial they all suffered and endured together. In the end when the movies allows for some sentimentality, it is completely earned.
Dunkirk is a cinematic triumph, one that somehow feels both epically huge and intimately small. The scale of the action taking place is immense and executed to technical perfection. The opening sequence where Tommy darts around alley corners and over garden fences as the enemy pursues him, the panic and chaos that ensues when dozens of men frantically try to escape from a sinking ship, the hectic dogfights between the Spitfire planes and the German aircrafts, these are all intense moments that grip the viewer and transport them right into the film. And yet the human element is never lost. Whether it’s the fear of a young man of being forsaken, the torment of a traumatised soldier, or the pressure felt by a pilot flying solo and on reserve fuel, Dunkirk allows us to fully understand and appreciate the trials and tribulations of those who were caught in the middle of this tight spot. Dunkirk is not a great watch, it is a great experience and (I really cannot stress this enough) it is one that must be seen in the cinema.