Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh
The Dunkirk evacuation is a curious event to make a film about. Theoretically a retreat, it was turned into a moral victory by the extraordinary nature of the endeavour, and a desperate Britain, in it’s darkest hours, casting about for some good PR to bolster morale. Perhaps because of this it has remained a little explored area of the genre, with only a handful of films made about it.
It is 1940, and the German Blitzkrieg into France has proven wildly successful. Encircled and pushed back to the sea, 400,000 men of The British Expeditionary Force struggle to evacuate from the beaches of Dunkirk. All while under constant attack from bombs, artillery, and torpedoes. Hitting upon a desperate solution, Britain sends a large flotilla of civilian ships (with minimal support from the RAF), in the hope that they can survive the maelstrom of war that they are being sent into, and bring the stranded forces home.
As a director, Christopher Nolan can often have a problem with creating something that is a technical masterpiece, but emotionally sterile. When he tries to address this flaw, he seems to overcompensate, creating something that is pure melodrama (think of any one of the numerous times McConaughey cries out “Murph!” in Intersellar). In Dunkirk he gets the balance right, creating something that has such a powerful emotional resonance that it floors you. However he does this in a most perculiar fashion. Instead of leaning into character development and emotive dialogue, he strips it down to the bare bones, instead placing the emphasis on the images and sound.
The result is extraordinary.
In recognising his weaknesses, Nolan is capable of playing to his strengths. Ably assisted by long time collaborator Hans Zimmer’s tension ratcheting score, Nolan produces something more akin to a symphony than a film. The images and the music are perfectly melded, building in steady tension till they reach crescendo with the evacuation. It is no mean feat, made even harder by the fact that the three main story lines (land, air, and sea) which Nolan cuts constantly between, are all taking place in different time frames, despite interacting with each other. It’s an intricate puzzle, but utterly in keeping with the director of Memento and Inception.
All this is aimed at plunging the audience straight into the action, be it seeking cover on the beach from a dive-bombing Stuka (complete with the terrifying shriek of the “Jericho trumpet”), navigating a small yacht through U-boat infested waters, or tangling against ME-109s with a squadron of Spitfires. Nolan knows how to stage intricate set pieces, and Dunkirk is no exception. Dealing with land, air, and sea, he brings the organised chaos of war to vivid life. In many ways Dunkirk acts as one long extended set piece, increasing the tension as it cuts between the three environments, rarely giving the audience chance to catch their breath. Best of all there is a reliance on practical effects to do this. A choice that really plays out on the screen, giving each ship sunk, each plane downed, the feeling of something physically tangible rather than that straight out of a computer game.
None of which is to say that the ensemble cast is wasted, rather it is sparingly used. The action might be given pride of place over dialogue, but what little dialogue this sparse piece has is applied with precision. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead plays the audience’s point of view character, a young Tommy struggling to get home, with barely a word spoken for the first half of the film, instead conveying weariness and desperation in his demeanour and actions. The big speeches are given to inveterate actors such as Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Valkyrie). Rylance especially shines here, with a performance that is contained and paired back, but is completely in keeping with the moral heart of the film, and the “Dunkirk spirit” evoked.
An evocative work that is a strong contender for next year’s Best Picture Academy Award. Dunkirk is a meticulous piece of art by a director at the height of his career, and the results are there on the screen.