Christopher Nolan’s new film follows soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire, Canada and France as they’re surrounded by the German army and evacuated during the eponymous World War II battle.
Dunkirk is an impressionist masterpiece. These are not the first words you expect to see applied to a giant-budgeted summer entertainment made by one of the industry’s most dependably commercial big-name directors. But this is a war film like few others, one that may employ a large and expensive canvas but that conveys the whole through isolated, brilliantly realized, often private moments more than via sheer spectacle, although that is here, too. Somber, grim and as resolute in its creative confidence as the British are in this ultimate historical narrative of having one’s back to the wall, this is the film that Christopher Nolan earned the right to make thanks to his abundant contributions to Warner Bros. with his Dark Knight trilogy. He’s made the most of it.
With multiple Winston Churchill/darkest-hour films hovering about these days, the story of England’s resolve in the face of Nazi aggression three quarters of a century ago is once again common currency. Nostalgia for effective leadership and a Britain that no longer exists doubtless play a part in this, but, for all its emotional potency, this film doesn’t trade in cheap sentiments, stiff-upper-lip cliches or conventional battle-film tropes. It’s about resolve, determination and survival on the ground, on the water and in the air. When one of the soldiers finally makes it back home after a harrowing journey, he’s greeted with a, “Well done.” “All we did was survive,” comes the reply. “That’s enough,” says the soldier, who, almost miraculously, will live to fight another day.
Using a risky, even radical narrative structure that splits the storytelling into three intercut chronologies of different duration, Dunkirkdramatizes the calamitous climax of the attempt by the British Expeditionary Force to help French, Belgian and Canadian forces stem the Germans’ stunningly swift sweep through France in the spring of 1940. Some 400,000 mostly British soldiers ended up on the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, desperate for a way to make it across the 26 miles of the English Channel — so near, practically close enough to see, and yet so far.
There are essential practical and logistical matters that need to be understood — that the shallow waters prevent the arrival of large ships and that English owners of “little ships” were encouraged to make the crossing to help rescue as many soldiers as possible. Still, the sight of so many men waiting in endless queues hoping to be picked up makes it all seems like a true mission impossible.
Nolan, who wrote the script himself, presents the brutal truth of the situation with lashing, pitiless directness. The first scene has several English soldiers being shot at as they run through city streets, and all are cut down except one. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it to the beach, where he finds countless thousands of other soldiers already lined up waiting for transport; the arbitrariness of who lives and dies is established at once. One of Nolan’s bold decisions is to never even show a Nazi; we see the result of the enemy’s aggression, especially from the air, but not once is a villain, or a swastika, offered up to function as a target for the viewer’s own aggressive emotion.
Tommy shortly teams up on the beach with two other soldiers, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles), and the three finesse a plan to get out on the mole, a long narrow pier where boats can tie up under the supervision of naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the closest thing to an even-handed type on view here, and his army counterpart, Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy).
With naval vessels largely useless, the only real effort the English military can muster is air power, represented here by three Spitfire fighter planes sent to bring down as many Luftwaffe bombers and fighters as they can. The ace flier is played by Tom Hardy, whose face is once again largely hidden behind a mask (as in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as well as in the more recent Mad Max: Fury Road). The aerial sequences are brilliantly and excitingly filmed, and Nolan has made a special point of showing how difficult it was to line up a moving target and score a hit.
The third major narrative thread involves the brave effort of a middle-aged civilian sailor, Dawson (Mark Rylance), and his teenaged-son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) to sail their small private yacht across the Channel to bring home whomever they can. They’re joined at the last moment by a friend of Peter’s, George (Barry Keoghan, who made quite an impression in Cannes this year as a loathsome teen in The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a greenhorn who has no idea what he’s in for, especially after they take on the shell-shocked lone survivor of a sunken ship (Cillian Murphy).
Nolan’s daring gambit, which only comes into focus with time, is to intercut these three related but distinct narratives, each of which has its own time frame and duration: The general evacuation went on for nine days (during which the Germans held back from delivering the coup de grace, for reasons that are still debated), Dawson’s crossing of the Channel occupies just one day and the air battle probably lasts, in real time, little more than an hour. Yet all these actions are combined as if they are happening simultaneously, a strategy that ultimately works to emphasize that what we are seeing is a highly selective representation of the whole, both in number of participants and time span.
Dunkirk also vividly contrasts the hugely different ways in which the soldiers experienced the same event. On the beach are tens of thousands of men standing in queues waiting for passage, sitting ducks for any sort of aggression the enemy might exert; above them are solitary pilots roving the brilliantly clear skies for enemy aircraft, engaging in aerial duels and, in one breathless scene, ditching in the Channel; several of the soldiers spend excruciating time hiding in the hull of a capsized boat as random bullets persist in blasting through the metal; and a Red Cross hospital boat is sunk in the harbor, creating massive panic. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers are at once all in this vast struggle together and quite on their own to respond as each moment demands.
All of Nolan’s films are intensely visual, but it’s fair to say that Dunkirk is especially so, given the sparseness, and strict functionality, of the dialogue. This is not a war film of inspirational speeches, digressions about loved ones back home or hopes for the future. No, it’s all about the here and now and matters at hand under conditions that demand both endless waiting and split-second responses. Hardy probably has a half-dozen lines in the whole picture and, given his mask, does most of his acting with his eyes, something at which he’s become very good indeed. Quite properly, though, no one stands out in the large cast; as required, everyone just does his job.
Although the film is deeply moving at unexpected moments, it’s not due to any manufactured sentimentality or false heroics. Bursts of emotion here explode like depth charges, at times and for reasons that will no doubt vary from viewer to viewer. There’s never a sense of Nolan — unlike, say Spielberg — manipulating the drama in order to play the viewer’s heartstrings. Nor is there anything resembling a John Williams score to stir the emotional pot.
Quite the contrary, in fact. In what has to be one of the most adventurous of his countless soundtracks, Hans Zimmer enormously strengthens the film with a work that equally incorporates both sound and music to extraordinary effect. Mostly it’s effectively in the background, reinforcing the action as a proper score is meant to do. But at times it bursts forth on its own to shattering effect. On initial experience it registers as an amazing piece of work that would require repeated exposure to analyze just how it has been conceived and applied to the narrative drama.
Similar levels of top-marks work have been turned in across the board here, notably by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose second consecutive feature with Nolan was shot on a combination of Imax and 65mm film to stunning effect with a boxy aspect ratio; the format certainly plays a significant role in one’s almost instantaneous immersion in the world of the film. Production designer Nathan Crowley, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and the visual and special effects teams have also made major contributions to the film’s thoroughly authentic feel. Editor Lee Smith has helped the director tell the tale in a brisk 106 minutes, making this Nolan’s shortest film since his small, homemade 1998 first feature, Following.
A decimation of the British at Dunkirk would almost certainly have resulted in the U.K.’s capitulation to Hitler and no American involvement in the European war. So the climax of the film, as beautiful as it is thanks to the visually stunning presentation of Hardy’s character’s fate, is more like the beginning of the real war. Even here, however, Nolan has figured out how to counter convention by having an excerpt from Churchill’s famed “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech of June 4, 1940, heard, not as intoned by the great orator himself, but by an ordinary soldier in very ordinary tones.
In Dunkirk, Nolan has gotten everything just right.
Production company: Syncopy
Distributor: Warner Bros.
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-screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Executive producer: Jake Myers
Director of photography: Hoyte van Hoytema
Production designer: Nathan Crowley
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: Andrew Jackson
Special effects supervisor: Scott Fisher
Casting: John Papsidera, Toby Whale
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes