Dunkirk is a disaster movie disguised as a war movie. The goal of the characters we follow is only to survive and help others survive the terror that lurks just out of sight but that is slowly closing in. The Germans are only referred to by name once or twice, and are only seen once at the end of the film. They are a force of nature, more like the weather in The Day After Tomorrow rather than the Wehrmacht of Saving Private Ryan. Christopher Nolan’s newest film cares more about looking at fear and survival than it does heroism and battle. In doing so Nolan has created something truly special, and perhaps the best film of his career.
Dunkirk is a story told from three different perspectives covering three different periods of time, each following a different group of characters as they participate in the evacuation of the British Army from the beaches of Dunkirk. The first part, The Mole, lasts a week and follows a group of soldiers looking to get off the beach. The second, The Sea, lasts a day and follows a small civilian boat and its crew as they assist in the evacuation, and the third part entitled The Air follows a British spitfire squadron as they patrol over Dunkirk and lasts an hour. Dunkirk takes a non-linear approach, cutting between these perspectives until they come together at the climax.
Nolan’s characters are archetypes, most don’t have names and those that do are never given full names. They are almost mythological figures, representing a very British view of national identity, stoic and ready to do their duty. There are long stretches where no one speaks, instead Nolan allows the sound to do a lot of the heavy lifting, with the sound design pushed to the front. Gunshots are loud, the rush of the sea and the howl of the wind feel oppressive and threatening, and the sirens on the German dive-bombers add an extra element of fear to every bombing. The score by Hans Zimmer, is ethereal and by incorporating a ticking watch serves to highlight the race against time inherent to the film.
The film also looks amazing, with the claustrophobic tightness of a packed ship hull or an aircraft’s cockpit contrasted with the vastness of the English Channel or the wide open beach. Nolan reverses our expectations with these tight closed spaces becoming a symbol of safety and home while the wide open spaces of the sea and land are threatening, home to the danger that they seek to escape. Each actor conveys their fear and determination in different ways, with particular praise for Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy who portray a boat captain and a shell-shocked soldier respectively. Unfortunately these are the only two actors who are given anything of substance to do, with some characters, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton especially feeling superfluous at times. If there are failures in the film it is that by making these characters so broad it is hard to care about them, although this is often countered by the strong acting.
My only other small bone to pick is with the ending, which may seem a bit clichéd, and yet still worked for me. This is because unlike with many of Nolan’s other films, this film is deeply moving and emotional without ever seeming manipulative. Every moment of emotion, all the fear, and triumph feel truly earned in this movie, something that is hard to say about his other films. Dunkirk pulls together all of Nolan’s talents to create a film that, like the best in its genre, reveals human nature in the face of disaster. Dunkirk is something truly special, and deserves to be seen.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.