I’ll start by saying, that you may already know how this one ends. Whether it’s the actual events of Dunkirk or the review of the latest Christopher Nolan film.
Any British person will have had what transpired on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 drilled into them through history lessons. Culturally, Dunkirk has become the great story of the prevailing British underdog snatching victory out of defeat during its darkest hour in World War II, in which a flotilla of civilian boats miraculously aided the effort to evacuate 400,000 troops from Germany’s unrelenting Blitzkrieg tactics. In this sense, you go into Dunkirk knowing how it all ends. Of course you do. A military defeat that forfeits France to Nazi occupation but a monumental success in how it evacuated British forces from the jaws of destruction. A stone cold miracle.
Dunkirk begins just how you imagine it would with a squad of young British soldiers ambling through deserted French streets. German pamphlets reign down from the skies telling the soldiers that they are hopelessly outgunned and should offer their immediate surrender. Suddenly they are shot at, we do not see the attackers. The squad is reduced to one, who makes a hasty retreat until he hits the beach, where to his horror he sees thousands of soldiers standing there just waiting. This is when the ticking starts. The ticking of a clock you feel with each second, forcibly driving the movie forward along with Hans Zimmer’s cold sweat inducing score.
That ticking comes a pocket watch owned by Christopher Nolan’s. The pocket watch is an apt metaphor for the kinds of films Nolan makes. These immaculately made event movies, these puzzle boxes of many different moving parts and ideas that all come together and coalesce into this single marvellous entity.
Nolan is also a director who likes to use film to play around with time and conventional narrative delivery. This goes way back to Memento, a paranoid thriller that is played backwards to keep the audience gripped and guessing, it’s also alive in Inception with it’s multi-layered narratives playing on top of each other throughout different dream scapes. It is a big part of Interstellar as the forces of gravity bend time itself with catastrophic results.
He’s also become a master of scene juxtaposition. Look back at The Dark Knight, when so many different story elements are coming together and reaching a head as the authorities try to establish order when all of a sudden – the joker card is played, and subsequently flips everything on it’s head. Turning bad to worse. In 2014’s Interstellar, he juxtaposed the conventional countdown to rocket launch, with Cooper’s heartbreaking split from his family. For Nolan, film is this time bending superpower with which to tell a story, and we’re all along for the ride.
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature length movie that retells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. For a war movie, Dunkirk is very unconventional in what you may expect from the genre. There are no real big speeches or switching to expository scenes from Churchill’s war room. There’s not even much time to humanise most of the characters, no wartime brotherly bonding, no talk of lasses waiting back at home. The windswept beaches and the wide opens spaces of water belonging to the English channel create this inescapable purgatorial plain of hopelessness and despair. For it’s first twenty minutes it plays out almost like a silent movie, with little talk and only these grand spectacles powered by Zimmer’s riveting score.
It’s almost anonymous in it’s depiction of it’s characters. we never see the face of the enemy, though we see their planes and torpedoes. Harry Styles features in the movie much to the joy of many a teenage girl, but his appearance is very matter of fact, he’s just one of many soldiers looking to survive and escape this hopeless situation. A face you might recognise within the many, but a face none the less, one more number to save.
In 1999 Steven Spielberg set the standard of the modern war movie with Saving Private Ryan, a style that has been emulated through countless films and video games, most recently with Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. While Spielberg and Gibson both used shocking levels of violence and gore to convey the horror of war, Nolan has gone virtually gore free with Dunkirk, but he’s still successful in expressing the sheer terror felt by the soldiers on those beaches, through sound and stark visuals.
Dunkirk is told through three different perspectives, each playing out over different periods of time but thanks to Nolan’s tinkering with cinematic form, play out at the same time, giving the movie a non-linear narrative structure similar to Inception, to ramp up tension, character revelations as well as the bigger issue of just making this moment in history all the more monumental and dramatic. At first it’s a little jarring, when you see day shots snap suddenly into night shots, almost like you are being shell shocked, but gradually you pick up the strands and start following it, seeing how it all comes together in satisfying ways.
Strand 1: The Mole plays out over an entire week, dealing with the soldiers waiting on the beach, desperately attempting to escape by any means necessary. This centres mostly on a group of young soldiers led by Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy, though occasionally peppered with expositional scenes from Kenneth Brannagh’s Commander Bolton overseeing the evacuation. Strand 2: The Sea plays out over a single day and involves Mark Rylance’s civilian boat captain commandeering his vessel to assist in the evacuation, along the way he picks up Cilian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’, who is suffering from shell shock and a dangerous insistence to not go back to Dunkirk. Strand 3: The Air plays out over an hour and deals with a trio of spitfire pilots as they provide covering fire for the Navy and civilian boats, one of whom is Tom Hardy’s ace fighter pilot Farrier.
Together, Dunkirk has been shot entirely on Imax cameras, a technology Nolan has been increasingly using since the Dark Knight. If you see any of the making of videos of this movie, it is stressed that these cameras are much bigger and heavier than conventional cameras. In Dunkirk they are used like handhelds for the first time. They actually had to build one of the cameras into a spitfire to get the aerial shots they needed since Nolan prefers to shoot the action as real as he can. The results are absolutely staggering. Seeing the spitfires in flight just by itself is enough to make you go misty eyed but to see from the hull of these crafts being pursued by dog-fighting Messerschmidts a thrilling spectacle. The authenticity of what is on screen just brings you further into the movie. Again, this isn’t your usual ‘Hollywood’ depiction of war, when fighter planes go down, they don’t blow up, they stream clear lines of smoke as they arc towards the ocean.
Then you have Hans Zimmer’s score, of which I’ve already spoken highly of. Christopher Nolan seems to bring the best out of the film industry’s most sought after composer. Whilst the ticking of the clock forms the foundation, like it did in Inception, Zimmer works in these stark compositions that fit organically with what is happening in the movie. Distorted strings create the effect of sirens, percussive elements sound like hurried boots scurrying upon the metal decks of ships, even the sound of stuka dive bombers become part of the soundtrack. Finally, when salvation comes, the tension breaks with this magnificent patriotically charged refrain from one of Britain’s most famous composers. It’s beautiful when it happens, and despite all the shit that this country is engulfed within today, you can’t help but feel a little sense of pride for old Britannia. It’s magic.
I said in my earlier review of Their Finest (another period piece involving Dunkirk), that war movies have a bigger role of responsibility to play today. As the decades roll on, the void between then and now is in danger of lessening the historical memory of those global conflicts. We forget the errors in the past which makes us more prone to repeating these errors in the future. Therefore, it is through war movies that we relive those conflicts, we remember them. This is something that Nolan understands, I feel.
Dunkirk doesn’t play out in conventional three act structure, so it plays with what you normally expect from a war movie. The events of the evacuation aren’t laid out for us in an easily digestible educational manner. There are losses and small victories happening all the time, horror and moments of just waiting around and it’s not as if these moments are building to the next scene or colouring character development or setting up anything further down the line. It’s as if all these moments are playing out all at once. Ever week, day and hour. Every second of that ticking clock. Like history itself, playing out all at once in our collective memories.
Dunkirk has received a lot of praise, and rightly so. There have been others who have criticised it’s historical inaccuracies and it’s lack of diversity in casting. As ever there are the familiar criticisms that despite Nolan’s films being so technically brilliant they are lacking in emotion or sentimentality. A director like Spielberg is well skilled at this of course, Saving Private Ryan is a very emotional movie. Before Nolan became involved in Interstellar, it was Spielberg that had shown interest in directing it before he chose against it. Which led to critics suggesting that whilst Nolan’s ending fell a little flat, Spielberg would have perhaps been able to have made the sequence in which Coop speaks to Murph from the 5th dimension more hard hitting emotionally. I do think this is slightly unfair. Nolan almost keeps things simple and pure and lets the audience gain whatever they want out of these pure visuals. We don’t have to be shown, we simply take what we want and there is an enormity of power in how we view what he sets out on screen. Dunkirk is detached in places, but it feels planned, serving the tension, because we are so detached, any one of our characters could be killed in any particular moment.
For me personally, I don’t see how anyone could not be affected by seeing a Spitfire gliding over the beaches of Dunkirk to the cheers from the soldiers below. It’s just a beautifully serene moment. As are so many other moments in the movie, such as the film’s ingenious juxtaposition of closing shots.
Dunkirk is a towering achievement in terms of cinema and the war movie genre in general. The most celebrated director of modern times has done it again, continuing to experiment with audiences expectations and conventional narrative flow. It’s so exciting to see popular cinema be done right like this. I think it may even be as good from start to finish as Memento and Inception. It’s intense and awe-inspiring, and you absolutely must see it on the BIGGEST screen you can.
Joe Wright’s period drama about how one little case of mistaken identity has devastating repercussions also plays with audience expectations and features this absolutely startling one shot of the beaches of Dunkirk.
Their Finest 
Released this year, and mentioned previously, Their Finest is about a group of British film makers attempting to make a film about Dunkirk in an effort to influence the US public to join the war. It’s a familiar plot about a bunch of rag tag Brits overcoming great adversity to do something brilliant. It’s also about the importance of art even in the darkest of times.