Dunkirk (2017) Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.
Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s love of cinema is a blessing to all of us. Small corners of the internet take issue with the god-like adoration directed toward him, however, he gives the impression of a man who could not be more humble when it comes to his place in the grand pantheon. Nolan’s relatively small back catalogue is a collection of epic, tactile tales of heroism and adventure. The scale of his work has widened since Memento, yet it is with Dunkirk that he seems to achieve a mature marriage of epic intimacy.
The film is effective in stitching together drama from various viewpoints, occasionally backtracking into a form of non-liner storytelling typical of Nolan’s work. His sparse screenplay seems to be about realising the essence of the situation, as intertwining stories of component characters are told from sea, land and air. In war we see the absolute best and worst of human nature pitted against itself. Nolan doesn’t shy away from darkness, but prefers to shine light on the best of people. In many ways, Dunkirk is more a superhero film than any one of his Dark Knight trilogy.
The allied British and French troops aren’t always portrayed as perfect heroes. Yes, they fight side-by-side against a notably off-screen advancing German army, yet among themselves they distinguish nationality to give preference to each other based on it, even at the cost of lives. No matter which side of the conflict they fight for and no matter what the cause – human beings do desperate things to survive.
Keeping the aggressive force in the background adds suspense as the audience are given the same narrow perspective as the characters. We see and hear what they see – the terrifying threat of marauding enemy planes, gunfire and bombs.
Dunkirk is a film about heroes, but also about the cost of being a hero. It’s about what war does to a person – how when forced in a live or die situation, some ‘heroes’ might choose to save themselves first. The film making is mature and precise in its delivery, making it a rare example of a film about warfare that isn’t simply about the graphic or political nature of it – more a study on the forced adoption of a certain mentality.
The overall feel of Dunkirk is a one of respect. Respect for the remarkable things people did in the name of preserving a way of life. There are moments of heartbreak, but it doesn’t feature the full-on horror of warfare seen in Saving Private Ryan, leaning more toward being a focus on normal people doing what needs to be done.
Of the main story arcs, I personally found Mark Rylance’s to be the most moving. Rylance is a beautifully understated screen presence, so much so that I found myself willing the movie to be about him, his son and the plucky friend who joins the fight. Headed by Tom Hardy, the dogfight sections of the film offer a claustrophobic white-knuckle experience, while highlighting the bravery of the men willing to fly a tin can through the sky while being shot at on limited fuel supply.
Poetic shots of soldiers congregated on beaches, helplessly undefended against air bombing raids are poignant and devastating, but I did encounter brief moments when I lapsed into almost losing interest, mainly aspects of Foinn Whitehead’s central journey of survival, which I found less emotionally powerful than others. I’d attribute that to a combination of finding other sections so involving and the distracting presence of One Direction.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of Dunkirk is how the lyrical nature of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography captures that defiant sense of homemade heroism. Hans Zimmer’s score amplifies suspense, but also gives way to a sense of pride in valour in the use of an adapted version Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. There’s a beautiful restraint in the way the music is employed to evoke sentimentalism with the brakes on, which is reflected in the authenticity and respect with which the film treats both the subject matter and the audience.