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A new classic: Cerebral and tense, “Dunkirk” is a remarkable film

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THIS extraordinary new film is almost as notable for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. What it does, first of all, is to recreate the evacuation of 300,000 British troops from a beach in Nazi-occupied France in 1940 from three different perspectives. One section is set on and near the broad beach, where a bedraggled young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) is hoping to catch a lift back to England, and where a brisk naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) is overseeing operations. Again and again the soldier thinks he’s homeward bound; again and again he is flung, like Sisyphus, back to where he started. Another strand is set on the English Channel, where a middle-aged civilian (Mark Rylance) is steering one of Operation Dynamo’s fabled “little ships”. And one is set in the sky, where two unflappable RAF Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) maintain their cool professionalism as their fuel runs low.

This might seem conventional enough; “Dunkirk” is hardly the first war drama to cut between several storylines. Christopher Nolan’s stroke of genius is to have his storylines running at different speeds. The beach sequence unfolds over a week, the sea sequence over a day and the sky sequence over an hour. And yet Mr Nolan, who wrote as well as directing “Dunkirk”, intertwines these strands so that they all appear to be happening at once—a time-bending trick he tried out in “Inception” (2010). It’s only later in the film that you spot the connections; you realise that the ship that capsized after half an hour in one strand is the same ship that capsized after an hour in another one. As in Mr Nolan’s breakthrough film, “Memento” (2000), there’s a jigsaw puzzle for the viewer to assemble. By the end it’s clear that he has written three seemingly separate short stories which are bound intricately together. While he was refining his screenplay, his office wall must have been papered with flow charts and diagrams.

The music is nearly as radical as the structure. Composed by Hans Zimmer, it is, appropriately, the kind of nerve-shredding score you’d associate with a horror movie, or a Hitchcockian psychological thriller. It’s relentless and insistent, with ticking noises and wave after crashing wave of strings heightening the tension. Bursts of staccato white noise build momentum like a steam train accelerating through your skull. It’s impossible to ignore.

“Dunkirk” is blatantly the work of a clever film-maker who loves to experiment with innovative techniques. But the elements that Mr Nolan leaves out are significant, too, elements which can be categorised as: “everything you might expect from a war movie.” An opening caption mentions that “the enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea”, but that’s all the scene-setting we get. Mr Nolan drops the viewer straight into the frantic heart of the action—so that we are as bewildered as the protagonists—and he keeps us there without respite. There are no scenes in the Cabinet War Rooms or on the home front, no sign of either Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill, no stirring rhetoric or bonding conversations. Mr Rylance and Mr Branagh have a few on-the-nose lines which sketch in some context, but otherwise the dialogue and exposition are pared back to the bone.

Amazingly for a war film, not a single soldier pulls a dog-eared photo of his fiancée from his pocket, or tootles a wistful tune on the harmonica. Nor are there any German characters. We see the bombs falling and we hear the hellish shriek of the Messerschmitts, but Mr Nolan’s stark, immersive film focuses tightly on the everyman-ish British troops, and their minute-by-minute struggle for survival. 

It is also striking that “Dunkirk” doesn’t draw attention to its cinematography or editing. Ever since Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” rewrote the genre’s rules in 1998, the standard way to shoot a battle sequence has been to have the camera swinging around madly, as if the camera-operator were dodging bullets, and then to edit the footage into the rat-a-tat rhythm of machine-gun fire. Mr Nolan, in contrast, opts for clarity and classicism in his shot choices. He keeps things as simple as possible, presumably trusting that the traumatic events on screen are vivid and powerful enough without the need for any extra gimmickry. He resists the temptation to shock the viewer with exploding heads and severed limbs, as so many post-“Private Ryan” war movies do. Instead, he manages to make a wholly believable and deeply stressful film with almost no blood in it—or, for that matter, any swearing or sex. There is more explicit second world war gore in “Wonder Woman”, which means that “Dunkirk” will soon be an essential component of British school history lessons

If there is a downside to Mr Nolan’s refusal to go down the easy, manipulative route, it’s that he doesn’t quite reach the viewer’s heart. He may exercise the brain and the adrenal glands, but “Dunkirk” is too high-minded to get you sobbing or praying for a favourite character (though some over-zealous fans of Harry Styles, a boy band heartthrob who plays a young soldier in the film, have been worrying about his fate). But that’s a small price to pay for such a major achievement. Intimate and epic, minimalist and expansive, intellectual and visceral, “Dunkirk” feels at once like a cerebral art installation and classic war movie. It takes a 77-year-old story and makes it new.

Correction (July 21st): This article originally referred to a 47-year-old story. It is of course 77 years old. Apologies.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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