The dialogue is so minimal that there are entire stretches of Dunkirk with not a word spoken. Yet when those words do come they are often as quietly devastating as what we are witnessing on screen.
– The tide must be coming in —
– How can you tell?–
– The bodies are coming back –
And it truly does feel as if we are witnessing an extraordinary and even pivotal point in our history. That is just one of the things that writer-director Christopher Nolan has pulled off in a film that is both epic and intimate.
There’s a lot that we don’t notice until later, so perfectly has Nolan done his work.
An opening title card tells us ‘the enemy’ have surrounded and are closing in on the Allied forces in northern France – it literally is a case of ‘next stop, Britain’ – and only when the end credits run did I realise that not once have we seen the face of that enemy. Instead, we watch – as helpless as the film’s characters – as planes cause mayhem by dropping coldly impersonal bombs.
And, for a modern war film, there is next to no blood. Dunkirk doesn’t need it. Instead there are scenes such as an early one where a terrified man is crouching in the foreground as explosions rapidly move towards both he and the audience.
Right from the first moments we are made aware that this is probably not going to be a film about heroics. We see men running from and mercilessly picked off by that unseen ‘enemy’. This isn’t some glorious battle we’re looking at here: it’s an evacuation; it’s a rout; and it is a hell that we have created on earth.
Afterwards, I realised that I could remember very few names. We are thrown into this early episode from a war that would grind on relentlessly for five years and then we are left afloat with precious little context other than that these men were fighting for something bigger than themselves.
– They’re waiting for the next battle
– What… battle?!
– The one for Britain —
Yes, just as unseen as the enemy is, so too the men pulling the strings at the top remain invisible. We hear the voice of Churchill, but we don’t see him – and what we do see undercuts much of what he is saying.
There’s a scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – told from the German point of view – where we learn that the ordinary soldier no longer has any ideals: he is not fighting for ‘the stinking Party or the Fuhrer, he is fighting for his life’.
The sense of that not-so-simple bid to survive permeates throughout the whole of Dunkirk. And yet ultimately this film doesn’t embrace what could be seen as nihilism. It embraces life; and finally, almost driven by something – yes, again – bigger than themselves, we will see quiet acts of true heroism that left me with tears in my eyes. And it’s a long time since I wept in a cinema.
By giving his characters very little in the way of backstory, Nolan walks a line where he could have been accused of pretentious existentialism. With a finely-played balancing act he could have easily tipped over into sentimentality. And by once again fragmenting his narrative and time sequence he could (and probably has) left himself open to criticism of being ‘too clever’, whatever that is.
All I can say is that for me – a guy who has never been the director’s biggest fan – all of it worked. All of it worked.
He makes it clear in the first ten minutes that we’ll be seeing this from three different main angles. He even spells it out for us: I: The Mole (one week); II: The Sea (one day) and III: The Air (one hour). We will see the same scene from different and fresh angles and experience time as a vortex that is spiraling in on itself to one point, one defining moment.
Believe me, the only one getting pretentious here is Yours Truly, simply because I’m so in love with this film. Nolan handles it a damned sight better.
As he does his actors: what an astonishing thing, to cast so many big names and then leave them with little dialogue and often even precious little screen time. This isn’t an Attenborough Bridge Too Far effort where big name actors all get their own little set piece. There is a sense here that everyone is as important as the next man.
That cast includes Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Brannagh, Tom Hardy and Harry Styles who, after all the bitching about giving a role to a member of a boy band, acquits himself well and with assurance as a frightened young man who really has lost any ideals he might have started out with.
Murphy’s character isn’t much better: shell-shocked and almost hysterically terrified of being delivered back into the thick of it, Murphy is also the recipient of one of the most unexpectedly humane acts I’ve seen on a cinema screen in many years.
The stand-out for me however is the great Mark Rylance, playing a father who is just quietly determined to do the right thing in order to make up in some small way for the carnage that is going on around him. “Men my age are dictating this war” he says; and in his tenacity he probably represents the best of what we often lousy human beings are capable of.
Hans Zimmer’s white-wall soundtrack plays throughout and in one fine moment even segues effortlessly into strains of Elgar — another example of what in other hands could have become disastrous sentimentality but doesn’t.
We can take away so much from this film, not least of all the gorgeous and empty skies polluted by creations of war. And the final image of a burning Spitfire somehow brilliantly symbolizes both defeat and victory in the one.
In his novel Tales of the South Pacific – a wartime masterpiece from another generation – James Michener talks of names like ‘Shenandoah’, from an even earlier conflict, falling ‘distant on the ear’. It’s no harm for this pampered generation to remember another name that now falls distant, that of ‘Dunkirk’; and for them to reflect on what these men did — and suffered — and lost — so that we would at least have a chance of making something better.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a great, great film; and I doubt I’ll see a finer or more moving one for a long time.