Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest subversive blockbuster, opens with a collection of British soldiers strolling, with quiet trepidation, through an eerily desolate town. Above them, flyers drift from the sky like snowflakes, bearing a message from the Germans. The Brits are cornered, and the clock is against them. One boyish ally (Fionn Whitehead) plucks a flyer from the air, takes it in and moves on, before the quiet of the town is ruptured by crackling gunfire. It’s from here, after but one eye-catching visual, that writer/director Nolan puts his foot to the pedal, seizing us with a vice-like grip inside merely a handful of frames, and refusing to relinquish his stranglehold for the duration of his film.
Nolan’s latest is a historical triptych, recounting the events of WWII’s Dunkirk evacuation from three overlapping fronts: land, sea, air. On land, said boyish ally, Tommy, retreats to the eponymous town’s nearby beach, wherein he finds 400,000 of his fellow soldiers, all waiting to be rescued and transported back across the English Channel. Among them a British private apparently named Alex (names aren’t of particularly importance in this film), played by Harry Styles, and another named Gibson who we first meet as he buries a fallen countryman alongside a sand dune (Aneurin Gibson), the three forming a trio of weary youngsters who can do nothing but await their fates, Kenneth Branagh’s fearful yet stoic Commander overlooking the foamy shores on which they’re trapped as he ushers soldiers onto ships.
At sea is Mark Rylance’s noble Mr. Dawson, a civilian whose underequipped yacht, alongside hundreds of others, has been commissioned by the British Navy to journey across the Channel in a cobbled, makeshift rescue mission. Dawson without reservation answers the call, so too does his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a teenager eager to make good, George (Barry Keoghan). In what is a throng of strong performances, each perfect in their depiction of that steely-eyed British pragmatism which has since come to define the story of Dunkirk, it’s Rylance who best captures the spirit of the exercise; a beacon of quiet doggedness who is masterful in allowing the material to work for him. Rylance trusts the story and direction to properly cue the emotions of his character, allowing him in turn to portray them without the contrivance of overt performance.
In the air, Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire pilot named Farrier, engaging in a series of dogfights as he offers air support to those on the beach, the hapless troops who have found themselves the aim of intermittent German bombings which scatter sand and bodies to the winds like confetti. Hardy’s pilot too has a companion, played by Jack Lowden, the two offering a semblance of cool in Nolan’s pulsating narrative, even as they too find themselves at the centre of startling, heart-in-mouth conflict.
So impressive about Christopher Nolan, the master synthesiser of arthouse and spectacle, is the way in which he is able to both indulge and dispel so much of what accompanies the the word “blockbuster”. Consider his Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, films which in true blockbuster style boast all the epic, action fuelled, populist thrills that one could hope for in mainstream cinema. They are larger than life and etched with wow-factor and yet, they are movies which, in contrast to the simplicities that connotate “blockbuster”, insist on asking a great deal of their viewer. They draw on material not readily conducive to a blockbuster’s intended mass appeal, dealing so heavily with complicated substance as they do. They are dark and morally complex and demand the viewer be as wary and alert as Nolan himself. A Chris Nolan blockbuster champions craftsmanship and innovation ahead of volume and formula.
In the case of Nolan’s latest feature, Dunkirk, the reconciled binaries don’t stop at arthouse and spectacle. Dunkirk is a film which is muscular yet lean, epic yet intimate, clinical yet humanist, taciturn yet rich in its communication of emotion, and always gut-wrenchingly visceral. The result is arguably the director’s finest work, and a historical drama that stands apart from all others.
At first there are the technical achievements which lay apparent on the surface. Hans Zimmer’s forever intensifying score is brilliant in its ratcheting of panic. More ambient than melodic, the composer’s shrill strings and metronomic percussion, both of which are underpinned by the perpetual tick of a clock, are tireless both in their assembling of tension, and in their turning time into an antagonist. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is as much a logistical feat as it is a feat of viewer immersion. Given the large format Imax cameras assigned to him, in addition to Nolan’s strict avoidance of CGI where possible, Hoytema employs an impossible dexterity to authentically transport us into the heart of the predicament—sweeping across the British Channel, assimilating the role of pilot in some frames, dangling us from the Spitfire’s wings in others, bringing the killing floor beachfront into a textural, terrifying reality. Using 65mm stock, Hoytema’s images all bear a pale, ghostly complexion too, as if to inoculate the film against any unearned glory or sentimentality, a challenge for Nolan’s previous effort in Interstellar.
Nolan has often found himself a comparison to Stanley Kubrick in his technical acumen, a craftsman with surgical precision and meticulousness. Less attributed to Nolan is a ruthless efficiency. It is not the disposition of WWII historical dramas to clock in at under two hours, nor is it the disposition of Nolan himself, whose last five features have each eclipsed the two-hour twenty mark. Dunkirk however is decidedly trim and punchy, the breakneck pacing augmented by the non-linear layout (the three threads of the narrative each unravel over different timeframes: a week on land, a day at sea, an hour in the air), lending the heart-pounding thriller an exasperated urgency. Nolan’s crescendo-like structure is Hitchcockian in its breathless compilation of anxiety and unease; the film hits the ground running and only increases in pace, resulting in what is effectively a single, prolonged, harrowing thrill that spans the film entire.
Previously, Nolan has been charged with eschewing character for technical perfection, something which at a glance appears true now more than ever. Nolan’s latest offering is on the surface the director’s most distant, impersonal feature. At times, the film is closer to the work of silent cinema with its surprisingly sparse dialogue, than it is to the ostensibly similar likes of Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. There are no quiet moments in Dunkirk, no backstories to be shaded in, no interplays to reveal personality. Dunkirk crucially is not about young men with sweethearts to return to back home, nor is it an attempt to delve into warfare’s sticky politics and amorality, as so many films of this nature endeavour to be. Nolan’s language is strictly visceral, his rich empathy stemming from something more fundamentally human—the will to survive. The film has no interest in the wins and losses of battle—after all, the centrepiece in an attempted retreat. The enemy are seldom named nor seen, instead the German’s appear as some omnipotent force, their bullets, ear-marked for the British, appearing to materialise mid-air.
Instead, the director’s eye is turned to British solidarity and what has subsequently been dubbed “The Dunkirk Spirit”. In that, Dunkirk is fundamentally empathetic: we relate to these characters via their fear and the resolve in them it inspires. It’s these ideas that are in a sense the true protagonists of Dunkirk, fear and resolve, the characters more blank canvasses for their projection than fully drawn individuals.
There is something painterly in the way that Dunkirk firstly distills a fierce, harrowing thriller from it’s incredible true story, before then distilling from this thriller a document on steadfastness and unity, as though the picture with each additional stroke unveils itself to be something more, something different. To reiterate, this is not a traditional war film, war is merely the arena, the combat itself is absent. Instead Dunkirk, rather unobtrusively, is about the forging of that titular spirit. As Nolan so poetically captures, wars may not be won on evacuations, but character is. To make that altogether different victory at once populist, poignant, and most of all unbearably exciting, seems to me to be what cinema is for.