Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, is an astonishing film, retelling the Allied Evacuation of Northern France in 1940. It is a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screens within reach. But its spectacle doesn’t stop at the recreations of Second World War combat.
Like all great war films, it’s every bit as transfixing up close: at the wheels of the civilian boats scudding across the Channel, inside the cockpits of the fighter planes tearing overhead, and most of all on the beach, with those uniformed boys barely out of their teens, wrestling with the strange notion of defeat with honour even as they fight for their lives.
The land, sea and air strands of the story unspool simultaneously, even though each one spans a different period of time. It’s one week for Fionn Whitehead’s pointedly named Tommy – as in Atkins, presumably – and the other common troops huddled on the beach, one day for the civilian sailors, like Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his schoolfriend (Barry Keoghan) sailing from the English coast to Dunkirk, and one hour for Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s Spitfire pilots, thinning out the Messerschmitts that dart and dive overhead like buzzards scenting blood. (In an unnerving piece of streamlining, the film keeps the enemy troops themselves almost entirely out of sight: they’re only present as falling propaganda sheets, swooping aircraft, bombs and bullets.)
It’s a structural device that sounds confusing on paper but is creamily intuitive in practice, creating an unshakeable sense that these scattered events are somehow driving towards a single pivotal historical moment. It’s also about as self-consciously ‘clever’ as Dunkirk gets: the film is so differently ambitious from Nolan’s earlier work, it makes you wonder where on earth he’ll go next.
There’s arguably something of the Inception spinning top to the juxtaposition of two images that ends the film – about which I’ll say no more here, other than it may be the single most haunting cut in Nolan’s filmography to date. But the questions it poses, about the actual substance and significance of the british dunkirk spirit, both then and now, are asked in a spirit of total seriousness. And Dunkirk is every inch a British film, with no detectable concessions to the international market. There isn’t, for instance, the commercially fortunate presence of an American face among the cast.
Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh also appear in prominent, true-to-type supporting roles. But a couple of context-setting spiels are as close as things come to the swelling rhetoric the presence of Branagh – or Hardy, or Rylance, for that matter – might lead you to expect. Amid the moment-to-moment heroism and struggle for survival in Dunkirk, the dialogue is sparse and functional at most: think barked orders, cries for help, stoic radio chatter as tracer fire whistles past canopies.
What matters above all else is the actors’ visceral engagement with whatever seemingly insurmountable task is facing them in any given moment. (Hardy, who spends almost the entire film behind a flight helmet, has only his eyes and eyebrows to work with, and of course they’re more than enough.) you could describe dunkirk as a silent film at heart – and the superb hans zinner score, battering, surging, metronomically counting off the seconds, is such a constant presence it’s more or less a supporting actor.
At one point, when the British soldiers are strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy throws himself on the sand, and huge geysers of sand rush up into the air behind him, closer and closer, until the debris beats down on his head like hailstones. It’s an indelible shot that takes on an extra waking-dream lucidity in Nolan’s preferred field of vision flooding imax format.Turning the world on its side is a signature Nolan camera manoeuvre, and it happens repeatedly here – albeit more subtly than in Inception’s corkscrew corridors and origami skylines.Its use during the scenes of aerial combat is as exhilarating as you’d expect, while in an extraordinary sequence in which a battleship takes on water and capsizes, the sea and the vessel’s hull seem to fold together like the closing covers of a pop-up book. It’s almost like something out of Eisenstein or Vertov – mad angles, teeming compositions, and completely unlike a special effect.
In terms of the financial side of the film (nolan’s films are always near the top of the box office world), which is said that the budget was $155M, the film is looking to open to $52M, more than nolan’s last film interstellar but less than inception and should go on to around $200M domestically and $600M worldwide. not bad for a war film.Steven Speilberg’s saving private ryan and terrence malik’s the thin red line, that double-bill of masterpieces from 1998, rewrote the rules of engagement between cinema and war, and changed the way many of us think about both. Dunkirk is as unlike those films as they are each other, but all three fall into a tradition of capturing real, enormous horrors at intimate quarters that can be traced as far back as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).That task – perhaps more than any other in cinema – takes a filmmaker at the peak of their powers. This is the work of one.