Samuel Brace on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, its greatness and its finest moments…
This is what cinema looks like.
Greatness is a word that gets thrown around a lot, used and abused until it means very little at all. But Dunkirk, the WWII drama/thriller by Christopher Nolan is indeed greatness; in fact, greatness is a descriptor rather inadequate for what has been achieved here.
Dunkirk is a classic, a wonderful representation of everything cinema could and should be.
The more I think about Dunkirk, the more I’m affected by it, the more its claws dig deeper inside, the more its position on the grand hierarchy of film rockets skyward. As yet, I’ve not been lucky enough to witness its wonders on more than one occasion, I can only imagine the esteem I will hold for it after a second viewing. And this, like Nolan’s previous works, is a film that demands a second viewing.
For those that don’t know, Dunkirk is the story about the evacuation of over 300,000 men from a French beach, mainly British soldiers that were trapped by the Nazis, sitting ducks for their military might. And the film conjured here is the perfect vehicle for telling this most valiant of stories.
Nolan is a director who one expects a lot from, his films are far from conventional, there’s always something more at play. Fans of his style of storytelling won’t be disappointed with Dunkirk, as this is a war film that is far from any convention. There is a genius and wholly unique structure to Dunkirk that is a wonder to behold. Set in three different fields of war, the beach, the sea, and sky, Dunkirk doesn’t just play with space, but time as well.
The events on the beach and its surrounding waters, focused on Fionn Whitehead’s young soldier, take place over the course of a week; the brave civilian sailors at sea, here encapsulated by Mark Rylance, coming to the soldiers rescue, unfold over one day; and the third and perhaps most breathtaking field of play – the sky – is dominated by Tom Hardy’s air pilot, his feats lasting just one hour. It’s incredible.
These three elements are at odds with each but are expertly edited and spliced together, leading to a disorientating experience quite unlike any other I’ve experienced. It sounds like it shouldn’t work – connected events happening outside the barriers of conventional time – but it does, and it all merges as one towards the film’s end for a stunning climax that I’m finding hard to shake.
Dunkirk’s greatness manifests itself in myriad other ways beyond its time bending structure, no less than in a score of monumental proportion and impact by Nolan’s long time collaborator Hans Zimmer. ‘Score’ doesn’t seem to be quite the right word however, as this – like the film as a whole – is far from normality. The ticking clock, the perpetual noise that ratchets up the tension, leading us from one ghastly situation to another, is every bit as essential to the film as the actors in it, or in fact the director guiding it.
One could speak endlessly about the stunning cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, or the dazzling editing from Lee Smith, but it’s all of these elements combined, fused together by a single personal vision from Nolan that creates the spectacle achieved. This is filmmaking at its finest, and everyone is at the peak of their powers.
With its incredibly tight runtime of 106 minutes, Dunkirk rockets along in the vein of Mad Max: Fury Road, but unlike that particular film, without a single second of respite, using every instant available to visualise the horrors of war and the bravery of those involved. Not one enemy solider is seen in Dunkirk, not until the very end of the movie after the bombs have stopped, and our heroes (mostly) have been saved. One would think Nolan surely had a tough time pitching his vision for the movie, but then again, this is Christopher Nolan, and he can do whatever the hell he wants.
The film’s opening, in traditional Nolan fashion, is a wonder. We start things off by following a group of young soldiers, boys, down the street as flyers drop from the sky – the Germans warning them that they are surrounded, and that resistance is futile. It doesn’t take long before the soldiers start to fall, picked off in thunderous and ruthless fashion by enemy fire — Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy being the only survivor. The nerves and tension start here, not letting up until we close to credits an hour and forty minutes later.
We are immediately chased through the streets with this young man, a kid far too young to be fighting the forces of evil, and it’s as he runs out onto the beach at Dunkirk, seeing the enormous expanse of sand before him, and the hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers, exposed to all that is above, that the film’s scale and dread start to take hold.
It isn’t long before Tommy and his brothers in arms are left ducking for cover, face down in the sand, hoping that they won’t be the ones obliterated by the enemy’s bombs. But is this all a single moment? Honestly, the entirety of Dunkirk is more like one long moment, scenes are hard to decipher, this is just war, one disastrous situation leading to another, and this masterful opening perfectly introduces the audience to this unrelenting experience.
Dunkirk isn’t a film about the enemy – which is mostly how the German’s are referred, I don’t believe the term Nazi was even used – this is a movie about the heroes of that crucial event. Dunkirk is the story of the soldiers that could simply only survive, and the civilians with their pleasure yachts and rickety fishing boats that came across the channel to save their countrymen from certain death, to save their nation from surely being conquered by evil.
It’s this grandiose and immensely touching act that left its biggest impression on this writer, the moment where Mark Rylance and countless other British heroes, approaching the beach at Dunkirk, are welcomed in by broken soldiers who were in desperate need of a miracle. It’s stirring stuff, and the significance of the act is impossible to shrug off. Nolan is often criticised for being cold, his films without heart, but such accusations have now been proved obsolete with his heartbreaking depiction of a father’s lover in Interstellar and here with his obvious affection for the staggering acts of bravery found in the waters of Dunkirk all those years ago.
This is a film without typical starring turns, the actors here are as unselfish as you are ever likely to see, committed to their director’s vision, happy to play their small part in this mostly silent Tour de Force. However, there is no doubt that the film is never more alive than when Tom Hardy graces the screen, mostly hidden and masked, only his eyes available to depict the direness of his situation in the clouds above the channel. It’s a wonderful performance, and I’m not sure how many actors could have pulled it off while still leaving such an impact.
Once the film’s unsynchronised timelines comes together at the last, Hardy’s fighter pilot truly comes in to his own, committing feats of heroism in a doomed spitfire, before crash landing on the beach, seemingly the last Englishman left in enemy territory. It’s a stunning climax to the film, containing perhaps the most majestic images produced to that point.
Watching Hardy, composed beyond belief, exit his beached plane, and burning the craft before being captured by the now seen enemy, is another perfect encapsulation of that Dunkirk mentality, the indomitable British spirit. But it’s these images fused with events back home, as we see and hear Tommy reading that famous Churchill speech, the infamous words “we will fight them on the beaches” overlapping Hardy’s demise, that come together to deliver this most rousing, inspiring, and simultaneously tragic of endings.
Dunkirk is a classic, a masterful piece of cinema that feels more art-house than summer blockbuster. It’s Nolan’s message to the world that this is what film can be. This is film at its most honest, brutal, exhilarating and inspiring best. Pure technical prowess mixed with a subject matter of thunderous weight.
Is Dunkirk the greatest war film ever? I don’t know about that, because it’s so unlike any war film in existence, so far removed from convention that it’s not really a war film at all. It’s a Christopher Nolan film; it lives in its own space, operating by its own rules. Nothing else can compare, and no one else can compete.