Nothing in British writer-director Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre – not Memento, Inception nor the Dark Knight trilogy – prepares you for the Second World War spectacle Dunkirk. It is an intense visual experience, exploring fear and courage through a sequence of suspenseful set pieces, with the bare minimum of exposition.
We are initially thrown into the action following Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young, frankly petrified soldier who just wants to get home. Fleeing enemy fire on the streets of the French seaside town of Dunkirk, he makes it to the beach, where tens of thousands of soldiers are waiting for transport; Nolan marshalled thousands of extras rather than use computer-generated crowds.
But Tommy does not have a battalion to join; he is nowhere in the pecking order. He teams up with another soldier who is burying a third man in the sand and together they find a wounded man on a stretcher and race with him to the Red Cross ship docked by a pier. Although he is queue-jumping, we want Tommy and his silent new friend to succeed. The drama that follows exists in three different spheres and time zones, covering a week on land, a day at sea and an hour in the air.
The film has a few “names”: Kenneth Branagh as a navy commander, Tom Hardy as a pilot, Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked officer and Mark Rylance as the civilian captain of one of many small boats that took part in the rescue of troops. Mostly, we watch young men and boys, overwhelmed and devoid of bravado. It is every man for himself quite literally, Nolan showing the cost of such desperation.
The film is both epic and intimate: epic for the sheer number of moving parts that Nolan orchestrates: aerial dogfights, soldiers dodging bullets and jumping from sinking ships. Intimate because it focuses on the drama of the moment. The pace is unrelenting. The only quiet moments occur when we expect something bad to happen, when soldiers are braced for the worst.
There is no ideology here, nor religion; just vast numbers fleeing for their lives. There is little about class, either. We don’t see officers from a privileged background pushing ahead of soldiers from working class communities. Everyone is required to wait their turn, with only a special dispensation made under the rules of combat for the wounded – and even that isn’t respected.
When Nolan commenced pre-production, Brexit – another form of tactical retreat from Europe – wasn’t on the cards. Whether Nolan welcomes it, the film assumes the form of a commentary. People are selfish, bigoted and petrified on impulse. Nobility goes out of the window. If there is any calculation – Hardy’s pilot, Farrier, has to deal with a broken fuel gauge and estimate how long he can stay in the air – it is only for the purpose of survival.
Of the young cast, you will become better acquainted with a few of them shortly. Jack Lowden as the young pilot Collins has the lead role in the forthcoming film England is Mine, playing the singer-songwriter Morrissey. Barry Keoghan as young George, who boards a boat to help with the evacuation of troops, will be seen in the autumn as a manipulative boy who demands that Colin Farrell’s surgeon make a cruel choice in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The one better-known cast member, Harry Styles, from the boy band One Direction, blends into the ensemble rather than distinguishing himself as a star.
Of the older cast, Hardy exudes the insouciance of Steve McQueen, while Branagh’s Commander Bolton is motivated by duty, putting others before himself. As a steady-on-the-wheel boat captain, Rylance’s performance is unfussy; the skipper refuses to deviate even when circumstances present a reason for doing so.
On their own, the suspenseful scenes lose their power, but Hans Zimmer’s score, a constant undertow of foreboding, binds the action together. The different time zones both show us how things end up and give us a glimpse of characters in different circumstances, notably Murphy’s shivering soldier before he ends up a sole survivor.
The film asks: is a tactical retreat heroic? Is living to fight another day the best a person can do? The answer has the air of ambiguity. Dunkirk isn’t jingoistic. It brings the feelings of survival down to the smallest level, the thing we keep to ourselves. It is absolutely compelling cinema.