2017; written and directed by Christopher Nolan; 106 mins
[Mild spoilers. Sorry.]
Well, the backlash is in full swing already. In fact, if I’m correct, it started on day one. Although – to be fair – the hype from the nerd high council was so stratospherically high that it was inevitable. That’s a shame because Dunkirk‘s really fucking good! Is it a masterpiece? Time will tell. Calm down. What I do know is that the fact that it evoked the spirit of Elem Klimov’s Come and See in a good way, means it’s something special at least…
Christopher Nolan‘s first film based on a true story is split between three (technically four) narratives. All starting at different points but running parallel with one another until they begin to converge towards the end. All telling the story of the evacuation of British forces* from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940. 400,000 men who could all be slaughtered by the advancing Nazis and destroy the Allies’ hope for victory.
The Mole (1 Week): This is essentially two stories: one of a young soldier stuck on the beach at Dunkirk, trying desperately to be first on the boats to England by any means possible. Aiding him is another soldier, anonymous and mute for reasons unknown. We also follow the frustrated Navy Commander Bolton as he oversees the escape from The Mole (the main jetty) and helplessly waits for news of any reinforcements or boats to take the men away.
The Sea (1 Day): Mr. Dawson, his son and a local boy called George, steal away from an English coastal town in Dawson’s ‘day-sailor’ yacht, hoping to help in some way. Along the crossing, they pick up a shell-shocked captain, who demands they turn the boat around and get away from Dunkirk. The three civilians, however, are determined to keep going.
The Air (1 Hour): Three RAF Spitfire pilots are on their way to provide air support for the troops. The squadron leader is shot down in an early dogfight so another (Farrier) takes command and they press on towards the terrifying sounds of the Luftwaffe.
This is a ticking clock thriller but one hesitates to say that at all. Not because a war film can’t be a thriller – far from it – but because the overwhelming experience of this movie (and it is an experience as opposed to a 3-act drama) is one of terror and then of sadness. Terror at the sound of the Stuka divebombers shaking the cinema or water filling up the frame as a ship sinks. Sadness because there are always, foremost, the faces of the boys, in almost every instance, stranded and helpless. Indicative of this is a locked off shot on the beach where Fionn Whitehead’s soldier, in ECU**, is face down in the sand during a bombing raid and we have to sit there and watch as the explosions come closer and closer and closer. In all honesty, I did want to cry afterwards.
For all that, it is a very mechanical, guttural film and that, I think, is it’s greatest virtue, which in turn brings out that emotion. Rather than aping the bombastic epics of David Lean, Nolan has done something that cleaves much closer to the later works of Alan Clarke or Robert Bresson’s style (Pickpocket and A Man Escaped are two films he’s cited as influences) or even Che, directed by Steven Soderbergh. Whilst not as severe as those films, this is a blockbuster that is avoiding the big Hollywood moment. Gone are the heroics of many an ‘up-and-at-em’, jingoistic warrior. Even the RAF pilots, coming to the rescue, are doing what needs to be done rather than being ciphers for some “Queen & Country” claptrap.
There has been much talk about the lack of dialogue and while there are long stretches without it, there is plenty to go round, it’s just that it’s, again, largely mechanical. Instructions and exposition, mission statements and increasingly frantic questions. And after all that, screaming. Even the polite Mr. Dawson eventually bellows frustratededly at his son’s constant pestering.
Surrounding the three narratives and the stripped-back screenplay, we have yet another, Inception-like structure to the film. Time expanding and contracting to tell the stories with Nolan strategically placing various visual markers around the map to let us know where we are. Smoke on the horizon, a sinking ship or characters appearing in other stories. It’s a battle plan that pays many dividends on various stylistic, thematic and tonal levels. In part because he’s once again asking us to keep up like he knows we can but knowing that if you are confused, you’re meant to be because of the overarching first-person aim of the film. They’re confused, you’re confused. There is a plan but the elements are taking time to come together and there is little to no communication between the timelines. So, a sinking fishing boat spotted overhead by Tom Hardy seems to be of note but why? Thankfully, it’s near a similarly sinking Destroyer which is returned to later in the film but occurring moments apart in the event itself.
Production-wise, Swiss DOP, Hoyte Van Hoytema, in his second collaboration with Nolan, does an epic job with grit, sand, oil, sea foam, rain and A LOT of water! Shooting in 70mm (would that I could see any movie in that format) and having worked with Scandinavian Tomas Alfredson, he knows how to get the utmost out of the miserable Northern European weather. You do feel cold and damp throughout much of the film, particularly when stuck on the beach watching the surf creep it’s sorry way toward dry land.
Everyone bangs on about Hans Zimmer all the time as being one of the great movie composers and I’ve generally not been that wowed by his work, except sometimes when he teams up with Nolan. Here, he and the director have hit on the seemingly simple conceit of basing the score around a ticking clock and yet, despite the fact that it never really stops throughout the film, you don’t spend the run time feeling like you’ve been bombarded by tedious music that’s telling you how to feel all the time (which is the scourge of movie-making these days). It weaves itself into the action as a counterpart, as a companion, as a piece of the whole. Crucially also, what it doesn’t do (and this is credit to the rest of the film aswell) is deal in cheap, little Islander triumphalism. There is a moment when the flotilla of civilian boats arrives and there is a swell in the music but that’s much more relief than flag-waving, I feel.
The pundits are talking Oscars already – well, who gives a shit? If the Sound Department don’t get recognised at next year’s awards, though… This is what most reminded me of Come and See. The explosions in that movie are horror movie scary! I don’t know why but when I first watched it, I was scared by the bombs going off and it was the same here. Guns sounding like real guns à la Heat and the escalating screams of those Stukas is completely terrifying!
The ensemble cast acquit themselves really well. There is no one-up-manship here. The great surprise of Harry Styles‘ performance is that he doesn’t stick out at all. He fits within Nolan’s construct as does everyone else. Tom Hardy, as in The Dark Knight Rises, proves that he really can tell a story with just his eyes and a distorted voice. Fionn Whitehead is the quiet standout, though. Carrying a large chunk with the film with his inexperienced and mostly silent role, he is our eyes and ears from minute one and he is both scared and courageous in a way that is believably, sympathetically ordinary.
These formal elements are really nicely capped off by the director’s typically steady handle on the sheer scope of the project. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film is when a hospital ship is dive-bombed as it casts off from The Mole. On the jetty, looking over Ken Branagh’s shoulder, we watch helplessly with him as this huge ship goes down in flames, in a matter of seconds and hundreds of men jump into the freezing waters to get back to the shore they want to escape from- all, seemingly, without a single drop of CGI.
Having also seen Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver this week (which I loved equally as much), I thought how these two directors seem to actually care about every aspect of the films they make. You never get the sense that they make the film in the edit. What Nolan has done here, is not just some pandering film about British bulldogs keeping calm and carrying on. The French press have aired their criticisms and whilst I think there is validity to their dismay***, I can’t help but think: glass houses. It’s a big, blockbuster movie that is about the unrelenting awfulness of that situation and not the military wiles and British ingenuity but the sheer luck that saved an entire army.
*… and French and Belgian but I’m kind of glad that their stories are not in there because I think Nolan has stretched himself as far as he can with the characters and rather they not be in there than have him write rubbish French and Belgian characters.
***God knows us Brits have whinged enough about Hollywood’s attitude to our contribution in WWII!