The opening of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s marvellous new feature, is near wordless. First, a few expository lines appear on-screen, briefly bringing the audience up to speed on the predicament of hundreds of thousands of British and ally troops during the early stages of the Second World War – men stranded at the very tip of northern France with an enemy fast approaching. But, soon after, the film does away with exposition; refusing to cut away to politicians arguing over policy, sweethearts praying for lovers’ safety, high-ranking officers debating strategy over maps, or even the backstories of any of its characters. Instead the film delves straight into the soldiers, the airmen, and the subsequent rescuing force of Operation Dynamo – the operation to save the troops from the horror that was Dunkirk; a situation famously described by Churchill as “a colossal military disaster”.
The film opens with a group of soldiers walking down a deserted street – one quaint and picturesque. Pieces of paper float above their heads like sleet. A soldier grabs one of the pages. On it is a map of the surrounding area. But it’s encircled with sinister arrows, all pointing to the beaches of Dunkirk. The British are surrounded. The arrows are encroaching.
The quietude is broken as shots ring out from behind. The soldiers scramble for shelter but are gunned down one by one. A frantic escape breaks out as bullets whiz by until we’re left with only one survivor. He scurries off to the beach and the camera follows. And there we’re greeted the sight of thousands of massed soldiers waiting for salvage; waiting for escape – waiting for a miracle.
It’s a fantastic opening. There are almost no words spoken but it communicates everything the film is about to explore: isolation, fear, desperation, and the callous brutality of war. Christopher Nolan emphasises the physicality of war through focusing on detail, forcing the audience to become aware of the simplest (sometimes even slightest) aspects of a scene – the sores of a man’s hands, the fumbling for a cigarette, the trickling of a garden hose – and then contrast that with the harsh, invasive crack of rifle fire and the ugly tumble of lifeless bodies.
The abrasive gunfire also introduces us to one of the film’s greatest technical achievements: its sound design. The sound in Dunkirk is imposing, aggressive and, even by modern standards, extremely loud. The screams of a Rolls Royce engine pierce the ear like a dagger. And that dagger begins to slowly twist as the tension is continually cranked up.
Christopher Nolan has always been fascinated with time. And since film captures time better than almost any other medium, it’s no wonder he is drawn to the light. He’s a filmmaker that is rarely given enough credit for the experimental narratives of his films. They twist, they turn, they jump back and forth, and, in the case of Memento, they sometimes even go backwards. The narrative of Dunkirk is every bit as elastic, but not nearly as gimmicky. It bounces back and forth between three sections; each of which, for the most part, takes place in separate locations and in different time frames. The events on the beach – called “The Mole”, in reference to the concrete jetty jutting out into the harbour – take place over a week. The events on the sea occur in one day. The events in the air transpire in an hour.
This narrative may seem complex – and, in a way, it is – but it is deftly handled by Nolan. The cutting between night and day is at first a little jarring, but it underlines the separation of the individual narratives, reminding the audience of the lines dividing each of these distinct storylines. As each section draws nearer to the point of convergence, Nolan still manages to keep them all in dynamic play with one another. And by constantly cutting from one story to the other, Nolan gives us little chance to relax before the next onslaught begins.
The section that takes place in the air focuses primarily on Tom Hardy’s character, a pilot for the Royal Air Force ordered to protect the British and ally troops below from enemy artillery. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy spends most of the film with his face obscured. This leaves his eyes to do all of the heavy lifting – and they rise to the challenge. At one point, Hardy has to communicate the dilemma of either heading back to base before his fuel tank runs dry, or to continue pursuing a German plane before it bombs more of his countrymen. And, in that moment, his eyes tell us everything we need to know. He grabs the leaver and presses forward.
The photography in Dunkirk is astounding. It was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (the Dutch wizard who also shot Interstellar and Spectre) on 65mm, meaning it fell to Hoytema to have to appease the ridiculously ambitious demands of a director renowned for his extreme determination (“I want to put an IMAX camera in a real-life Spitfire while it’s in the air – chop, chop”).
But all the formidable work paid off as the results are really astonishing. The film is full of breath-taking aerial shots whereby sea and sky bleed into one giant, daunting, all-engulfing canvas. The picture is slightly saturated and the blue and beige colour scheme works wonders in conveying the dejection of the soldiers – and the swooping shots of the beach are simply gorgeous. These particular images of Dunkirk dwarf the lost souls stranded within it, further highlighting the soldiers’ dreadful isolation and seeming futility. The irony of the story’s geography further adds to the film’s impact. It is said that on a clear day you can see the shores of southern England from Dunkirk. Home is in sight for these men. Yet it might as well be a million miles away.
The backbone of Operation Dynamo was a rousing armada of around 700 tugs, skippers, steamers, ferries, fishing boats and pleasure boats. Many of these boats were captained by their owners – British citizens who journeyed across the treacherous English Channel directly into a warzone to assist military vessels in bringing their boys back home. It became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. Mark Rylance plays one such British citizen. He, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and local teenager George (Barry Keoghan), set sail on their own to join the civilian fleet – and, once again, Mark Rylance proves to be one of the very best actors working in cinema today. His character is no more talkative than any of the other players in this film – characters that seem either stunned by events or strained by determination. But Rylance conveys a muted vitality through the simplest of gestures. His manner is restrained, but his eyes always express a staunch nobility and a quiet spirit.
Almost any other filmmaker would have made Dunkirk with the sprawl and depth of a film like The Longest Day. And although that format of filmmaking is certainly welcome, what makes Dunkirk so interesting is how much of an anti-epic war picture it is. The film manages to be both expansive and intimate at the same time – a genuinely remarkable feat. As a result, the film is incredibly focused. It’s deft, supple and brilliantly lean, and its dialogue is wonderfully minimalistic (although admittedly perhaps a tad too heavy-handed at times). Nolan’s script for the film was seventy six pages – roughly half the length of The Dark Knight Rises screenplay – and the film’s running time is less than two hours – a full hour shorter than his previous feature, Interstellar.
The economy of storytelling in Dunkirk is one of its greatest strengths. It’s crisp old-school filmmaking with suspense sequences clearly indebted to the master himself, fellow Englishman Alfred Hitchcock. Nolan knows full well that suspense comes from anticipation. And the longer a director can draw that out, the greater the suspense – the greater the trill. There are plenty of times during Dunkirk where the only thing the audience sees is a close-up of a character staring at the sky. That’s it. But the longer they stare, the wider their eyes grow. And over these images we hear the blistering roar of German aircrafts, poised to drop explosives on all the sitting British ducks below. Nolan holds these shots for longer than modern audiences may be accustomed. The cacophony builds and builds like a prison siren slowly wailing to life. And then… at that moment… he cuts.
Of course a lot of the suspense has to do with the score; and whereas Hitchcock had Bernard Hermann, Nolan has Hans Zimmer. Zimmer’s score nicks a little from Elgar’s “Nimrod” (the most patriotically charged of the Enigma Variations), but, for the most part, the score serves to heighten the suspense of the film. The strings stammer like machine guns and resemble the ticking of a clock, as if ticking down to something – maybe a detonation.
Dunkirk is an ensemble piece in the truest sense. There is no main character here. It is a story told through soldiers and their lived (and near-death) experiences. What matters is the operation – the will to survive. Famous faces drift in and out of frame. There’s Kenneth Branagh as the commander who oversees the embarkation; there’s Harry Styles as Alex, an evacuee whose deliverance was undone by a German bombing; and there’s Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier found shivering on a capsized hull.
There are also plenty of unknowns here, too – primarily Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy, a young Brit whom we meet in the very first scene. However, were it not for the end credits, I don’t think I would have remembered any of the characters’ names. This is because names here are unimportant. Words in general almost become superfluous as Nolan’s emphasis on the visceral reality of Dunkirk leaves much unsaid. The word “Nazi” is never once uttered during the film. In fact, we never even see a Nazi for almost the entire movie. The soldiers know exactly who they’re fighting of course; but, in a sense, the enemy is still an unknown – nothing but a burry stranger in a field looking to kill them.
One of the most enduring images of Dunkirk arrives at the film’s finale. It’s a solemn shot of a British plane on fire as its pilot stoically stares into the flames. The pilot set the craft alight to avoid its capture by the enemy. Up until now, we’ve had land, sea and air – we now end with fire. It’s a sobering image – an image of clear conquest, for sure; but also an image of sheer defiance. For Dunkirk is not only a film about defeat. It’s also about realising that how we deal with defeat may, in the end, be what saves us. And that is a message that is every bit as stirring and every bit as relevant as it was almost eighty years ago.