Tick tick, tick tick, tick tick. That’s the sound of impending doom creeping ever closer, an omnipresent part of Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Dunkirk. It could be called ‘Stress: The Film’ for the way it captures the anxiety and desperation of the troops stuck on the beach – with death lurking just out of sight.
The film places a magnifying glass over the events of the ‘colossal military disaster’ of 1940 and the subsequent evacuation. Unlike other war films, there is virtually no exposition. You’re dropped straight into the events of the battle through the lens of three different timelines: the troops stuck on the beach, desperate for escape; two air force pilots in Spitfires, locked in air battles with the Nazis and finally, a civilian vessel captained by an ordinary man with a strong sense of duty, Mark Rylance.
As the film begins, you’re jettisoned into the action. The stakes are immediately set: the enemy surrounds the British and French forces, there aren’t enough boats and escape seems unlikely. Just 40,000 of the 400,000 are expected to successfully retreat to defend Britain. You get no backstory, just the story of the soldiers on the beach, one of which is played by Harry Styles (who does a good job of it, to be fair to him.)
In the air, we follow Tom Hardy’s Farrier and Jack Lowden’s Collins, two pilots with one hour’s worth of fuel, dogfighting with the Luftwaffe to try and prevent the evacuation efforts being bombed to smithereens. What follows is some of the most visually stunning air combat I’ve ever witnessed, and easily for me the most compelling segments of the film. As Hardy’s character’s fuel gauge runs thin, he prepares to make sacrifices – but there’s no sense of heroism. Instead, he simply does what he can.
The most heroic actions are taken by Mark Rylance and his crew, consisting of his young son and a helper, George. These civilians travel across to Dunkirk to rescue the men ‘or else there will be no home to come back to.’ On their way, they meet a shellshocked Cillian Murphy.
Without giving the plot away, what impressed me about Dunkirk is the solid performances of men who aren’t given much to work with. No backstory, no long dialogue. Instead, it’s about getting on with the job at hand – whether that’s surviving on the beach long enough to be rescued or dispatching Germans in the air. All of this is accompanied by a sweeping Hans Zimmer score that audibly ticks like a watch, adding to the overall tension of the men trying to survive.
The scenes are shot tremendously, with a sense of cinematic scale unrivalled by other Nolan pictures. Despite this – it’s not my favourite and I don’t think it’s his best. I felt that, for a beach of 400,000 men, that sense of numbers was missing. Instead, we focus on smaller groups of men. Similarly, I felt the threat of the Germans was a stilted, with only a far off sense of dread briefly interspersed by the odd plane bombing.
Overall, however, the film is a triumph. A masterpiece directed by a man who understands cinematic scale. Tom Hardy’s segments were the winner for me, a man who can convey so much emotion with his eyes alone. The real emotion of the film comes from the civilian rescue and Mark Rylance, who is as brilliant as ever.
It isn’t, as some of Nolan’s films have been, a cerebral bit of character-driven storytelling. Instead, it focuses on the events that occurred and not the personalities of people in them. It’s a study of the stress, fear and anxiety of the evacuation – with the people depicted serving only to represent what it would have been like, stranded on that beach and waiting to survive, or die. Human interest is sidelined in the way of sweeping cinematic mastery – but with the tremendous shots and sublime score involved, that’s no bad thing.
Watch it if you liked:
Inception, Saving Private Ryan (Although Dunkirk’s tone is very, very different)