It almost goes without saying that Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film, is thrillingly good. The motif of Nolan’s work is an astoundingly high quality level. By turning one of history’s most famous battles into a desperate existential drama, he invigorates yet another genre. Watching a new Christopher Nolan film is as good as cinema gets right now.
Nolan is the master of understanding what his audience will know and what they will expect before the film begins, and then of playing with that knowledge and expectation. There is no need for character introductions or exposition here; war does not wait for such things. The tension hits ‘high’ on the barometer within the first 60 seconds, as a wandering band of British soldiers are all but obliterated by German fire. You’d expect to be able to catch your breath after such an opening; the most remarkable achievement of Dunkirk is that no such respite arrives until 106 minutes later when the credits roll. This is entirely deliberate; Nolan is demonstrating that war is suffocating – even, perhaps especially when you cannot see the enemy.
As the sole survivor Tommy (Fionn Whitehead, echoing both Matthew Modine in Full Metal Jacket & Jim Caviezel in The Thin Red Line) stumbles to the beach, he is met by line after line of silent, hollow British servicemen. They are sitting ducks with attacks coming from all sides. Geysers of sand form around them as the bombs fall, but just as shocking is their despondent reaction – wearily standing in line again as the danger momentarily passes. The futile queue for rescue boats is the only order they have to cling to.
In existentialist fiction, the foe of the narrative is often unspoken, unidentifiable or undetermined – think the plague of Camus’ La Peste or the perennially late Godot. In Dunkirk the enemy is all three. The few glimpses we get of German forces are whizzing bullets, swooping planes, the split-second horror of an imminent torpedo. The Allied & civilian opposition struggle constantly with identifying them; every time an aircraft crosses their path, small-time sailor Mark Rylance has to shout friend or foe to his tragically eager son.
Nolan is not the first filmmaker to depict war infecting everything it touches. However his tripartite structure, at once separating and uniting various factions of the battle, highlights not randomness but a heavy inevitability. Willing participants suffer terrible misfortune; even those who escape, like Cilian Murphy’s traumatised soldier, are brought back not kicking and screaming but staring and shivering. There is no time to ponder how it came to this; there is only time to survive. When pick-of-the-bunch Rylance gravely intones ‘There’s no hiding from this’, he is speaking a deep truth; in such relentless combat there are only victims.
In such a bleak tableau, constructing an emotional progression is tricky. Too little spirit and there is no life worth saving; too much and it lapses into jingoism. Nolan walks this line by spreading the change across his characters. At the beginning, Tommy & fellow waif Gibson attempt to use a stretcher-bound soldier as their passage off the beach. In no way do we judge their escape; it enhances our understanding of being on that unforgiving, open sand. It is pure survival instinct. Nolan understands that such acts exist in the same behavioural realm as the civilian flotilla forging their way across the channel; only a director (& just as importantly, writer) of his immense talents could knit them both together within 106 minutes. The line between survival for oneself & survival for the whole is best illuminated in an urgent, angry scene in a sinking, shot-upon ship, where the key player is none other than One Direction’s Harry Styles. Nolan wryly remarked that he didn’t know just how famous Styles is before he cast him; in the forbidding chaos of the waters off Dunkirk, his fame is swept away by the tides. Nolan conveys the one of the great horrors of Dunkirk; the dozen young, young men we see here are representatives of hundreds of thousands just like them.
For those who didn’t already know him, Dunkirk places Hoyte van Hoytema as one of the eminent DPs of his generation. Forging his own path alongside Nolan in the shadow of previous collaborations with Wally Pfister is a daunting task. Here he builds on his Interstellar work; the IMAX shots from within the cockpit of a Spitfire are not just breath-taking, but also serve the racketing tension that Nolan demands. Anyone having the IMAX/not IMAX debate must consider the circumstances of viewers – many people cannot spend £££ to travel to their nearest SuperScreen, never mind the exaggerated cost of a ticket. If you can possibly see it in its intended format then do – it is such swooping visuals for which the technology was created. If you can’t, see it anyway; we’re fortunate to have a blockbuster filmmaker as confident in his vision as Christopher Nolan, & Dunkirk is one of his most affecting spectacles.