Watching Dunkirk on a cinema screen is a transfixing experience. Christopher Nolan’s lean war film dispenses with the customary features of a picture in this genre: there are no scenes of generals plotting with maps, no histrionic moments of injury, and no flashbacks to soldiers’ lives before the war. This is a film with real propulsion from one forceful scene to the next, with cursory respite, all the time gathering momentum until its final perilous moments.
The film revolves around the evacuation of Dunkirk beach, which was populated with over 400,000 British and French soldiers following a decisive German victory. There are three narrative strands which interlink in an inventive and temporally complex manner. The first strand (‘The Mole’) centres on Fionn Whitehead’s young private as he navigates the beach, trying to find a way home. (The ‘Mole’ is a pier and its surrounding water, which serves as a station for Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, orchestrating the evacuation.) The second strand (‘The Sea’) focuses on Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, a civilian mariner, who crosses the channel as part of ‘Operation Dynamo’, using civilian crafts to ferry men home. The third strand (‘The Air’) concerns Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as Spitfire pilots, attempting to draw German planes into combat, relieving the beach from bombardment. The first strand takes place over a week, the second a day, and the third an hour. This structure may sound convoluted, but the story’s looping nature allows for intercutting of convulsive power.
Hoyte van Hoytema, the film’s cinematographer, who last worked with Nolan on Interstellar (2014), deserve serious approbation for the aerial section alone. These scenes are beautiful, filmed and edited with such clarity so no sense is lost in the swiftness of the action (Nolan and van Hoytema had the sheer chutzpah to kit out a replica Spitfire cockpit with a 65mm IMAX camera!). Tom Hardy, as RAF pilot Farrier, somehow delivers the best performance in the film. His face is obscured while flying, but Hardy is able to convey a wealth of emotions with his eyes and brows alone.
Dunkirk’s compositions are so suspenseful, that even if the film were silent, it would still be unnerving: shots of Branagh’s face watching a vessel sink before him, or a crowd of privates slowly becoming cognisant of an incoming strafing run are heartrending by themselves. But the sound design, concomitant with Hans Zimmer’s evocative score, intensifies the terror. Luftwaffe planes dive overhead, and their engines scream as they dash the beach with bombs. Zimmer’s bewitching score, his best since The Thin Red Line (1998), is composed of discordant violins, percussive ticks reminiscent of clock hands, and incessant pounding; it’s ominous almost beyond belief.
The ending will perhaps prove divisive, as on its surface it seems patriotic and celebratory. But pay close attention to the images shown in montage. One of which, without giving anything away, is of a burning Spitfire. Watching this wonderful machine disintegrate in flames is symbolic of what was lost. The ending is not a relieved celebration: it’s an elegy.
Image: Melinda Sue Gordon