Dunkirk, is not quite the epic war movie that one might have expected from Christopher Nolan, whose most recent effort was the impressive but patience testing sci-fi mind bender Interstellar. True it employs thousands of uniformed extras, impressive practical effects work, and covers the skies, the beaches and the seas with era appropriate military vehicles, but from the point of view of pure story telling this is Nolan’s most focused work since The Dark Knight (2008).
That story is told from three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. On land we have Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private who makes it to the harbour at Dunkirk, only to find himself bombed, shot at and half drowned as he struggles to get out to sea and back to dear old Blighty. While on the sea we have Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), a recreational sailor with a leisure yacht, who makes his way fearlessly across the English Channel to rescue as many men as he can. And in the air, protecting the outgoing ships, is Farrier (Tom Hardy), who sweeps the skies in his Spitfire, gunning down the enemy fighter planes before they can do their damage. It’s a starry cast to be sure – I haven’t even mentioned Kenneth Branagh or Cillian Murphy – but none of the characters is important enough to get in the way of the re-telling of perhaps Great Britain’s finest hour. They are simply representative parts of a moment in history that is much bigger than themselves.
Although one is aware of the attention to historical detail, Dunkirk is no dry trawl through an incredibly well documented event, however. Instead it’s designed as a series of intense survival and escape scenarios. No opportunity to ratchet up the suspense is allowed to pass. As mentioned, Tommy goes through living hell trying to get himself off the sands of Dunkirk, falling prey to bombs, torpedoes, German soldiers, and British officers who tell him to bally well wait his turn. All while the German bombers streak down from the skies, shrieking like giant birds of prey, blowing holes in British vessels and blasting apart men who have nowhere to run. The tension is almost unbearable, made more so by Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary score that includes the continuous soft click of a stop watch, which has a subliminal sphincter-tightening effect as time runs out for the stranded allies.
Aesthetically Dunkirk walks a line between a Paul Greengrass-like documentary style, and something far more cinematic. The aerial scenes, which are both beautiful and thrilling, are a perfect example of this. Shot from a distance, we get to truly appreciate the majesty of Farrier’s Spitfire as it wings above the clouds, while at other times, we are there in the cockpit with him, seeing the tension clench his brow as he closes in on an enemy fighter and squeezes the trigger to take them out of the sky. The effect is entrancingly lovely and totally immersive.
Equally impressive is the sense of isolation that Nolan manages to convey, made exponentially more painful because safe refuge is within visual range, as noted by the pier-master, played with strength and sympathy by Branagh. This atmosphere of helplessness is almost apocalyptic. During one sequence, fellow soldiers sit silently together on the beach, sharing water from a cantina; the sky over the sea hangs low, grey and menacing, turning the water an insipid, muddy shade of green, while funnels of black smoke curl into the air from bombed vehicles. Men push rowing boats out into the surf, only to have them washed indifferently back by the strong waves. Another man, presumably through desperation or delusion, simply wades out into the sea and starts swimming. These are soldiers awaiting death, their efforts wasted against the inevitable.
But of course, help does come in the form of the small civilian vessels that crossed the English Channel at the risk of their own lives. If the movie successfully delivers a relentless barrage of tension, then the arrival of these small floating saviours is the first moment that allows the viewer to breathe easy, if a little unevenly. It would be a hard man who doesn’t feel his jaw start to wobble at the sight of that rag-tag group of boats appearing out of the mist, while music from Elgar’s The Enigma Variations stirs deep in the emotional well. It’s a perfect moment of release from the clawing need to survive that we have sat ridged through, so close to the edge of our seats that it’s liable to leave a mark
Christopher Nolan has taken one of the finest moments in the history of his country and fashioned it into the finest achievement of his career. Dunkirk is a masterpiece.