An incredible technical achievement, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk makes no attempt to explain strategy or the historical whys and wherefores leading to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from under the noses of the German army in 1940. Rather, we are made to experience the battle as it was for those who were there.
Told through three stories which are intercut throughout the film, we follow a small group of soldiers on land, a volunteer crew taking a pleasure craft over the Channel to help with the evacuation, and three Spitfire pilots attempting to provide air cover for the beaches and embarkation with limited fuel and ammunition reserves. All three stories eventually merge at the climax of the film.
In a sense plot is irrelevant to this film. Its purpose is to make the audience experience the chaos, horror and terror of battle. Shells explode with a dull thud, bullets punch through metal, bombs scream through the air before hitting their target (this is a very loud film). All the while we are willing the participants to survive and get away from this man-made hell. At one point a distant soldier simply walks into the sea and starts to swim, his endurance has reached its limit.
Some people have criticised Nolan for not giving any context or sense of scale to the Dunkirk operation, which involved hundreds of thousands, but he is following a classic precedent in Stephen Crane’s ‘Red Badge of Courage’ where the story of an American Civil War battle is told through the eyes of a small group of soldiers. After the battle they all insist they were in the thick of the fighting – a battle is where you are, and that is the only perspective an individual can have. In this way the film stays true to itself.
This small-scale approach works but in a curious way it also makes the film lack intimacy. We want the men to survive, while not actually knowing them as people (their backgrounds, how they came to be in the army at all). We don’t want them to die, but when they do there is little sense of loss.
Intercutting is one of Nolan’s trademarks as a director, but with a true-life story to tell a chronological approach could have helped to give a clearer view of events without sacrificing suspense or audience involvement. As it is, we see soldiers standing on a wind-swept beach then cut to Spitfires in a cloudless sky. Would it have been less effective to show how soldiers were trapped without hope of rescue until, finally, the weather miraculously cleared and allowed those small boats a window of opportunity to cross the Channel?
The film certainly looks superb and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography captures the sense of being in all three elements, earth, water and air, particularly in the Spitfires as they wheel around the sky trying to line up a target or avoid becoming a target themselves.
The performances, particularly by the young cast members are all solid and effectively convey the desperation and fear of men in battle. Of the older actors Mark Rylance is quietly effective as ever as a no-nonsense seaman (closely based on Second Officer Lightoller of the Titanic, who took part in the evacuation), while Kenneth Branagh has one of the film’s most effective moments as he watches an enemy aircraft begin an attack and head straight towards him.
Dunkirk is a film which really has to be experienced to be appreciated. Writing about it is just not enough to convey its quality of making the viewer feel they are living through the action on the screen, not just watching in the seventh row.
British director specialising in dark thrillers. Made an impressive debut with the low-budget Following, but it was the time-twisting noir Memento that brought him to Hollywood's attention. 2002's Al Pacino-starrer Insomnia was a remake of a Norwegian thriller, while Batman Begins was one of 2005's biggest summer movies. The hits kept coming with magician tale The Prestige, and Batman sequel The Dark Knight was the most successful movie of Nolan's career, which he followed with ambitious sci-fi Inception and the final entry of his Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises. He then attempted to go as far as he could with sci-fi epic Interstellar, another huge success at the box office, which was followed by his World War II blockbuster Dunkirk and mindbending sci-fi Tenet, bravely (or foolishly) released during the pandemic.