A war movie with a difference ‘Dunkirk’ is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s skill and vision as a filmmaker. A student of history and film I have seen most notable war movies from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan and can safely say that like these Dunkirk has a unique element which makes it a modern masterpiece.
First and foremost Dunkirk is focused on the scale and magnitude of the events it is dramatizing. This is clear from the very beginning as Nolan uses wide establishing shots to show thousands of soldiers waiting inline for their chance to escape the beach. There is an odd order to the soldiers’ ere vigil as they stand patiently and helpless in the middle of a war zone which makes the entire scene feel surreal. However, to suggest that the film relies only on the large scale nature of events is overly simplistic instead it combines scale with the individual stories of almost nameless characters so that their own intimate experiences represents the stories of all the soldiers, pilots and seamen. This is perhaps most evident with Tommy and his different experiences trying to escape the beach. It is the combination of this scale and intimacy that gives the film its power and the ability play on the audiences emotions.
Structurally, Nolan is able to explore these events and their emotional impact because the film is able to explore three different narratives which converge at the films climax. This is an element more common to epic fantasy than a war movie which traditionally focus on a small group of soldiers and their experiences. It is a convention which is violently put down at the start of the film as the opening sequence of a small band of soldiers walking through desolate streets seems to fit with the genre as the audience can assume these will be the men the film will follow, until the are all shot in the back without a word except for Tommy who escapes and starts the narrative. Not only does the plot of the film fail to follow convention but Nolan complicates the narrative by providing three different time scales; one week, one day and one hour. Logically this makes sense as the planes can only stay in the air for so long but an hour is not enough time to properly cover the experience on the ground. At times this can be a little disorientating especially as the film approaches the climatic focal point but the quick cuts between narratives and that very sensation adds to the building tension and ultimately works.
In a way the logical necessity of the different time scales is symbolic of one of the Dunkirk’s other main strengths, realism. This normally means a war movie with graphic levels of carnage like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but Nolan does not look to sensationalise war in anyway, instead the film aims to present an authentic vision of the evacuation. The starting point here is establishing historical accuracy which is consistent throughout the film from the German propaganda, Churchill’s pessimistic hopes for the evacuation, the importance of the mole, the decision to hold back planes and even the soldiers’ anger towards the RAF all demonstrate Nolan’s commitment to detail and build a strong foundation. This is developed through the films ability to avoid sensationalism, perhaps most obvious in the depiction of the aerial battle. The small grouping of planes, the cramped cockpits, limited visibility and absence of eye-catching aerobatics are just a few examples as the film never tries to make these men out to be more than what the were. Instead the real story is allowed to impress audiences with the heroism of sacrifice and battling the odds. Perhaps the most striking element of realism is the limited use of dialogue which is kept only to lines that are seemingly necessary for the situation. It seems a simple idea but very few films seem to recognize that often by adding more dialogue it actually detracts from the overall visual medium as there is a tendency to use words to express ideas and emotions that can be shown to the audience rather than told using contrived dialogue.
In many ways this is the context for a raft of strong supporting performances as in many ways ‘Dunkirk’ lacks a traditional lead. Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy may have the most screen time but at no point does he dominate the film this makes sense since his character represents ever man on the beach. He has a difficult task alongside Domien Bonnard to make their non-verbal communication work but they both make their characters mutual understanding believable. As a result their journey is ultimately able to highlight the desperation and self preservation of all the men on the beach effectively for the audience. Tom Hardy is no less effective using non verbal cues in his portrayal of Ferrier as the characters major decisions can all be seen clearly in his eyes. Emphasised perfectly by the films cinematography and editing to show the thoughts running through his mind. Than there are the elder statesmen in Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh who both bring so much to the film. Whether it is Rylance’s ability to downplay the heroism of his character Mr. Dawson or Branagh’s weary appearance of shouldering the burden of command they both create depth in their respective characters. As a fan I couldn’t see anyone else balancing Commander Bolton’s forlorn sense of responsibility and his seemingly dry sense of humor with such master as Branagh, even his accent seems perfect for the role, a real British officer.
Historically Dunkirk was an important moment in WW2, a catastrophic defeat that could have been much worse. Yet, the fact that the British were successful in evacuating most of their troops providing them with the will and resources to keep fighting the Germans until they could go on the offensive with the US. This fine line between victory and defeat is captured throughout the film as almost every moment of heroism is connected to tragedy. Even in the film’s conclusion there is seemingly nothing to celebrate and this highlights the triumph of Nolan’s work.
An absolute must see, 9/10