Christopher Nolan tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk in a remarkable piece of work.
To give a very over-simplified bit of background to Dunkirk, in May 1940, the British and French armed forces were pushed back across France until they were trapped in a small pocket of Northern France. Faced with annihilation, the British army waited on the beaches of Dunkirk for evacuation, while the French held the town and the British airforce fought the Luftwaffe for aerial superiority.
Christopher Nolan originally had the idea for a Dunkirk film 25 years ago, but realised the large scale nature of the film would require a huge budget. It was only after his success with the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar that he had enough experience and clout to make the Dunkirk film that he wanted.
Dunkirk has three stories that we see unfold concurrently, which then interweave and overlap at certain points. There is “The Mole”, which takes place over one week, “The Sea”, which takes place over one day, and “The Air”, which takes place over one hour. The different time frames mean that we see different scene multiple times from different perspectives, with characters and events reoccurring.
“The Mole” is centered around the beach at Dunkirk, as 400,000 British soldiers wait to be rescued. The mole is the pier like structure soldiers can board large ships from, since the beach is too shallow. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the only survivor of his unit to make it to the beach, and soon begins to try and find a way – any way – to get on a boat back home. He is joined by two other soldiers Alex and Gibson (Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard), and the three try to survive a series of dangerous attempts to get off the beach. Kenneth Branagh is the pier master Commander Bolton, trying to orchestrate a way to get so many men safely away from danger.
“The Sea” is the story of Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, who along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan), takes to the sea when asked by the Navy to sail to Dunkirk. This is one of the most remarkable stories of the war, as hundreds of small vessels, manned by civilians, crossed The English Channel to help with the evacuation. They are plagued with doubt about whether they should keep going, especially when they come close to larger ships being fired at by German aircraft.
“The Air” has three aircraft trying to protect the British fleet as best it can. After losing their squadron leader, two Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden, who I last saw as Tony Benn in the excellent A United Kingdom) who keep the skies clear above the Channel, and try to reach Dunkirk with depleted fuel levels.
Dunkirk is a remarkable piece of work. I don’t think I’ve seen a film be so epic in scope and yet filled with tension. Beyond the usual war films, it reminded me of the Gravity, mixing incredibly tense moments with sweeping vistas. There’s also a sense that we are watching the final act of a much longer story – which of course we are – and that is what gives the film such an impetus. From the very beginning, with Tommy running away from gun fire coming from enemies we never see, this is a film about survival. Danger is everywhere – from the land, the sea, and the air – and each of the three stories is simply about trying to get home in one piece.
The time frames of the stories might seem confusing at first, but Nolan handles them well, signposting where we are at the important moments with a familiar face or clearly recognisable setting. After Momento, Inception, Interstellar (sort of), and now Dunkirk, has any other director dealt with non-linear/disrupted narratives with more skill than Nolan?
There has been an issue with Nolan’s films to become a bit bloated. The Dark Knight Rises was a bit baggy towards the end, Interstellar was just a touch too long, even the great Inception could have done with a slight trim. At 106 minutes including credits, Dunkirk does not over stay its welcome in the slightest. It has a sparse script – Fionn Whitehead is nominally the lead but is silent for vast parts of his time on screen – and there is no Hollywood heroism in the film. The message of “War is Hell” has been told many times on screen, but never quite in this way. There are no visceral, blood splatter when someone is shot. There are no expert marksmen picking off heroic soldiers clutching pictures of wives and girlfriends. Similarly there is no cathartic fist pumping celebration when things do go right. Tom Hardy dispassionately watches the planes he shoots down as they crash into the sea – no exploding fireballs of molten metal – and moves onto the next one. Interestingly, we never see any Germans on screen. The threat is everywhere, unseen, waiting, creeping ever closer.
Dunkirk is an incredibly tense, yet moving, film. I was worried that it wouldn’t be enjoyable, but it is, and yet it never glamorises or fetishizes the war. The cast do remarkably well, with the lesser stars (even the much maligned Harry Styles) acquit themselves well, and actually shoulder the burden for most of the film. Although some might expect a much more violent, bloody film, that lack of gore actually increase the suspense.
Go and see Dunkirk. It could be Christopher Nolan’s best film, and that is saying something.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
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