Christopher Nolan has directed some spectacular films over the years but his last feature – the tedious, bloated and seemingly endless sci-fi snoozefest Interstellar – was, without exaggeration, one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time. So for the first time in the career of a director I’ve always admired, I approached Dunkirk with something like trepidation. Was Interstellar just a blip, or was it indicative of a director who’d lost his touch?
I needn’t have worried. Dunkirk is a simply extraordinary piece of film-making.
Set during the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 following a disastrous defeat in France, Dunkirk opens with a group of British soldiers – all incredibly young, as most of these soldiers were – walking through the streets of the town as dozens of leaflets flutter down from the sky. A soldier opens one up to see it shows a map of the area with arrows coming in from all sides. “We surround you,” it threateningly warns.
From there we settle into the siege. The film plays out in three separate branches. In ‘The Mole’, a group of young Tommies (including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Bernard and a perfectly competent Harry Styles, late of One Direction) huddle amongst the hundreds of thousands trapped on the beaches, desperately seeking an escape. In ‘The Sea’, Mark Rylance heads for Dunkirk in his pleasure boat, joining hundreds of other small ships setting out to help the evacuation. Finally there’s ‘The Air’, which sees Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot battle the Luftwaffe over the Channel as he attempts to provide air support to the fleeing men below.
Intriguingly, these stories take place over different time spans – one week, one day and one hour, respectively. Nolan has always been a director who likes playing with time in his movies – he did it in Interstellar, and, far more successfully, in his classic 2000 thriller Memento – and Dunkirk plays out in non-linear fashion, shifting forwards and backwards in time in elegant loops, the stories occasionally inter-connecting with each other in a way that by stages adds colour and overturns what we thought we knew. Nolan manages this chronology-hopping timeline with astonishing deftness – despite the temporal complexity, audiences always have a clear understanding of what’s going on.
In Nolan’s hands, Dunkirk becomes as much of a psychological thriller as a war film. By the time the film starts, the battle is already lost – many of the British soldiers don’t even have guns left. All that’s left for them to do is try and survive. And as the Germans close in the film becomes a relentless assault on the nerves and senses. There’s exhilaration to be had here, most notably during the extraordinarily immersive scenes of aerial dogfighting. But for the most part the overriding emotion is one of terror, as gunfire splinters a fence protecting one soldier and others cower as German aircraft dive towards them with a terrible banshee howl (Dunkirk must surely be the favourite for next year’s Sound Editing Oscar). One scene, set below decks on a sinking ship, is pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel. Luftwaffe aircraft aside, the enemy themselves are invisible menaces – only once, briefly, do we catch a glimpse of a German soldier. This is mechanised slaughter, death visited from afar on the desperate Brits by an enemy they can’t even see, let alone fight. Nolan ensures we feel their helplessness every step of the way.
If that makes Dunkirk sounds like a relentlessly grim frog-march into hell, it’s actually far less exploitative than most war films, in part because Nolan avoids the extreme gore (for all its violence, Dunkirk is largely bloodless) and easy jingoism of movies like this year’s dire Hacksaw Ridge. Most war films profess an anti-war message while revelling in the slaughter. In Dunkirk Nolan sets out to demonstrate what a harrowing experience the evacuation was. There’s no rousing triumph of good over evil here. Instead there is just deliverance from immediate death in the aftermath of a catastrophic defeat. The film closes with the words of Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ speech – “We must be very careful not to assign to this delivery the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Shooting on 65mm film, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, a film that had many faults but certainly looked beautiful) paints the beaches as an austere, almost post-apocalyptic wasteland, with sea foam whipped up by the wind into a thick scum, and fires filling the horizon with black smoke. Hans Zimmer’s superb score, a cacophony of groans and drones, replete with air-ride siren squalls and clock-like ticking, provides a suitably sinister soundtrack that erupts into Elgar strings at the moment of salvation.
For all that Dunkirk focuses resolutely on the traumatic experiences of its characters – there’s little in the way of a big picture, no shots of admirals and generals poring over maps in a London war room – it may frustrate those looking for strong character arcs and more personal drama. The plot remains largely static for the entirety of its run-time (the exception being a sub-plot involving Rylance’s encounter with a shell-shocked soldier, played by Nolan favourite Cillian Murphy), and large stretches of the film are entirely wordless. This is a film about desperation, not characterisation.
Nonetheless, the acting is generally strong. In particular, Rylance’s laconic stoicism is as wonderful as ever, Whitehead does a lot with very little, and Hardy, his face covered by an oxygen mask, manages to conveys whole sentences through little more than a crinkle of his eyes. The film’s only real weak link is Kenneth Branagh, who gets saddled with some seriously clunky lines as the officer leading the evacuation. “What do you see?” a subordinate asks him as Branagh stares out to sea. “Hope,” Branagh replies, his eyes filling with tears as an audience rolls theirs.
Dunkirk doesn’t tell the whole story of the evacuation – in particular it rather underplays the role of the French. But it seems churlish to nitpick a film so stunning. For the entirety of its 106 minutes Dunkirk will knot your stomach and put you through the ringer. It is the work of a director in absolute command of his craft, and the best war film since at least 1999’s Three Kings – it might be the finest since Apocalypse Now. It is cinema on a truly epic scale, a tour de force of purely visceral film-making. There aren’t enough superlatives in the world. See it.