Released 2017. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh.
No film has ever left me speechless. I’ve sometimes said, “I’m speechless”, but those words have always emerged fully formed.
As the credits rolled and the lights came up after Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II blockbuster, I didn’t know what I felt. I didn’t know if I felt anything. I wondered whether I’d missed something. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I had to hold my tongue because I felt my jaw quivering and my eyes welling up. It took me several moments before I could utter a coherent sentence. I’ve sobbed at the ends of films before, but this was something different. This was shell shock.
I appreciate how melodramatic it is to use that term, but it’s the most appropriate one. In its full IMAX 70mm presentation, Dunkirk bombarded me with such an overload of visual and aural noise that I was left physically stunned by it. A detractor would decry it for sensory assault. It is. It’s no criticism. War is sensory assault, and this is the most evocative expression of that I’ve ever seen. Planes scream by. Bombs crash and explode. Bullets viciously punch through iron hulls. One of the reasons there’s so little dialogue is that it’s near impossible to hold a conversation in the kind of conditions it depicts. There are quieter, calmer moments, but there’s constant threat and unpredictability. There’s little time for contemplation. Mark Rylance’s mariner, Mr. Dawson, fleetingly reminisces about his son, a former pilot who died a few weeks into the war. That’s as much backstory as anybody is allowed. Dunkirk isn’t character driven. It isn’t plot driven. It’s situation driven.
Dunkirk depicts one objective: survive. There is no glory in the evacuation. It’s not a victory, it’s a retreat. Winning the war is not mentioned. It’s a dirty, chaotic scramble to get home (although it must be said, the British still queue impeccably). The situation is set up in simple intertitles at the film’s outset: “The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea … Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate … Hoping for deliverance … For a miracle“. From there, the plot is basic, but structured non-linearly. We see the events of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 in three intercut chapters, covering three different periods of time. The Mole depicts the struggles of the soldiers on the beach over one week, The Sea follows Mr. Dawson’s journey to France over one day, and The Air chronicles one breathless hour in the life of three Spitfires. From one perspective, it’s par for the course for Nolan, who adores finding new ways to play with the passage of time. From another, it’s a departure, and a significant one – Nolan’s plots may be complex and designed to misdirect, but they are always clear. Not so in Dunkirk. Much of the action blends together and it’s easy to lose your place.
As the chaos deepened and characters moved around, I found myself growing increasingly disoriented, especially with the Mole storyline. The fact that several of the main characters looked similar and unfamiliar to me didn’t help matters. I daresay that this was a very personal response, and that others didn’t experience the same confusion (particularly those who know who Harry Styles is), but it’s not one I consider a negative. If anything, I found it quite powerful. I didn’t really pick up on and figure out the different timelines until the film was over and I had a chance to think (I’d had the sense that something was up, and that the chapter titles included the durations of time they depicted should have been a clue, but I was overwhelmed). So when the three storylines converged at the film’s climax, each reaching the same point in time as the boat from The Sea arrived at the beach from The Mole, a Spitfire from The Air shot down the Luftwaffe pilot hunting the boat, and the boat went on to rescue soldiers stranded amongst now-flaming oil in the water, I recognised the principal characters from each storyline but failed to experience the visceral realisation that the film had been building to such a moment. I failed to appreciate the unexpected poetry of the moment, in which three elemental stories, one of earth, one of water, and one of air, combined to create fire. (Later, a striking shot of a burning Spitfire, sacrificed by Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, cements this.) I think this was my failure, but I’m unconvinced that it was my fault. That brilliant moment was stolen from me by the emotional torture I’d undergone for an hour and a half. If this was an intended or expected effect, it’s something for which Nolan should be applauded. It adds immeasurably to the climax’s power that a director who takes such pride in showing off his story structure should here be willing to sacrifice the catharsis it provides.
As well as spending an entire film structurally setting up a climax just to undermine it (as I choose to believe is the case), Dunkirk eschews convention in other ways. The plot, as mentioned earlier, is quite simple, if the non-linearity of its presentation is ignored. There is no clever plan to foil the enemy. The objective – survive – never changes according to events. Moreover, this is not a film about good vs. evil. The Germans are barely seen, but for some fighter planes seen from a distance and Germany infantry briefly glimpsed during the denoument. Dunkirk is not about The War, but about war, and the victims it makes of everybody. With that said, it also has little time for criticism of the British commanders. Admittedly, that’s usually reserved for discussions of the First World War rather than the Second, but any depiction of soldiers as ordinary young men forced out of place and into the abject horror of war tends to make room for it. Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton is deeply committed to the cause of getting his troops home, standing proudly on the mole, ensuring it remains open at all costs and eventually, once the fleet of private boats from Britain arrives to rescue his soldiers, triumphantly announcing he’s staying behind: “For the French!” (Incidentally, those who’d argue this is an apolitical film, or one about the need to escape the tyranny of Europe, could learn from Bolton. He’s literally a Remainer.) The chain of command above Bolton isn’t depicted and given little attention outside of the decisions it makes to hold back ships and planes, expecting them to be needed to defend against invasion of the British Isles. However, the film’s final moments are somewhat subversive, but not quite in the way you might expect.
As the soldiers return home on the train, they’re given a newspaper in which is published Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to the Commons. It’s a speech that, after everything we’ve seen, is capable of rousing patriotic passion, but it’s tainted. It’s read aloud by Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), one of the main characters we followed in The Mole, a young, innocent soldier who’s barely beginning to recover from the ordeal he’s just endured. There’s irony and a knowingness to the scene, but it’s not about the commanders at home sending innocents to their deaths, really. What it captures, just a little, is the political and cultural appropriation and twisting of horrific events to ends which go against them. We’ve just been through a nightmare that wasn’t exactly open to heroism, that certainly didn’t feel that heroic – it was a desperate scramble for survival – but here’s a newspaper telling us it was. This isn’t a simple scene to interpret, of course, and following the surprisingly vast number of soldiers brought home from Dunkirk there was both cause for guarded celebration as well as the need to emphasise Britain’s determination to fight on, but intercut with images of helmets strewn across the beach, of bodies lining the mole, and of the RAF’s Spitfire burning violently, the speech is soured. This is emphasised by the music, a quite extraordinary adaptation by Hans Zimmer of Elgar’s “Nimrod” that, just like Tommy’s reading of Churchill’s speech, simultaneously inflames patriotic pride while undercutting it. We feel pride while knowing the feeling is suspect. As we listen to Churchill’s speech and listen to Elgar’s music, we know we can’t trust our own emotions. It’s confusing, and powerful, and troubling.
The rest of Zimmer’s score complements Dunkirk‘s attitude to its story – it’s simple, it’s situational, it’s designed to generate an atmosphere of terror and chaos. I couldn’t pick out themes that I noticed, leitmotifs that repeated. What I could identify was a near-constant tempo, a low thudding beat that wouldn’t stop, that would just build and build. The music is dramatic, noisy, everywhere. In combination with the sound effects of artillery attacks, shouting soldiers and swooping planes, the soundscape is deafening and impossible to cope with. It’s a vital reason that the film’s world is convincing and its havoc relentless. Similarly, the full-frame IMAX presentation dominates your vision and – and I wish I had a better way of phrasing this – places you right inside the action. It’s tempting to claim that the 1.43:1 IMAX aspect ratio brings to mind classic Hollywood, being close to the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 (the film uses a muted colour palette that is, too, suggestive of old, sepia-tinged photographs and classic Hollywood), but it’s not something I felt during the film. Were the film presented on a regular cinema screen in this aspect ratio, I think it would be fascinating to watch and could well evoke classic cinema, but the impossible scale of the IMAX screen is designed to fill the visual field, to help you lose track of the frame.
Dunkirk represents an advancement in the IMAX cinema I’ve seen insofar as no single shot appears to have been significantly designed around it; the film normalises IMAX. Nolan’s previous use of IMAX has been in individual scenes and montages, switching from conventional widescreen ratios to the clearer, sharper, far larger format to showcase certain visuals or heighten certain scenes. Dunkirk is the opposite, shot in IMAX for the most part, switching back to 70mm for dialogue scenes (IMAX cameras are prohibitively loud when shooting dialogue). Still, the 70mm shots are cropped significantly so as to ensure the aspect ratio changes little. The titanic size of the image is no gimmick here, it’s not about showing off. It’s about encasing you completely within the film. In a sense it’s similar to the way stereoscopic 3D techniques have developed – they’ve always been about visual extravagance, poking the audience in the eye and so on, and will continue to be, but over time filmmakers have found ways to use it to enrich the cinema experience without calling attention to it. That’s what Dunkirk achieves with IMAX. You can’t ignore that it’s an IMAX image, but you can forget it, and its use is emotionally and physically compelling.
The approach to character in Dunkirk puts me in mind of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a 2015 videogame by The Chinese Room, in which a mysterious, incorporeal entity causes the inhabitants of a sleepy Shropshire village to disappear, one by one. Faced with the apocalypse, the townspeople don’t all respond in the same way. They’re angry, fearful, determined to escape, regretful of mistakes they’ve made, forgiving of others with whom they’ve had conflict. They’re imperfect in ordinary, human ways. And, although the threat they face is known and more immediate, the characters of Dunkirk are just the same. They are human, flawed, given to fear, bravery, panic, determination, and no single response is privileged over any other. A desperate French soldier takes the uniform of a dead Briton in an attempt to join the evacuation. Anxious soldiers hiding in a beached trawler gang up on him, believing him to be a German spy; when it is revealed he is French, they remain hostile and try to throw him off the ship. Mr. Dawson is driven, in the face of all common sense, to pilot his tiny boat, with his son, across the Channel and into the fray to collect what few men he can (going against the instructions of the Navy, who are commandeering private vessels themselves). Indeed, even on the way to France he picks up isolated men, his objective simple. His young boathand, George (Barry Keoghan), leaps on to the boat at the last second, naive but hopeful of doing something of note. One soldier, mentally shattered, simply walks into the sea, hopelessly trying to swim home.
Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot, Farrier, is the closest the film gets to a hero – he dogfights his way across the Channel with a broken fuel gauge and unflappable confidence, gliding over Dunkirk with the thousands of soldiers below cheering him on. Ultimately, he sets fire to his plane and, with that same unflappability, hands himself over to the Germans. But, although you might expect such swashbuckling bravado from a character played by a star, it’s not quite so simple: Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier, rescued by the mariner, lashes out in panic in an attempt to turn the boat towards England and, accidentally, severely wounding and blinding George. He is treated with pity later, informed by Mr. Dawson’s son that George is recovering; in fact, George has died from his injury. Perhaps it’s fitting that a well-known actor plays the dashing fighter pilot, but it doesn’t protect Murphy’s character from being a broken man in need of sympathy.
You will likely emerge from Dunkirk knowing little more about the true evacuation than you did going in. It is not overly concerned with the portrayal of real soldiers or events. This isn’t to say that Dunkirk is inaccurate, or that the truth of the story it tells is irrelevant. I am not familiar with the true events and can’t judge that. But that’s the point. Our detailed understanding of the facts – indeed, our trust that the events related are historically accurate – isn’t important. The film could be set in a fictional town, a fictional country, even a fictional war, and retain its weight and impact. Dunkirk makes its case through emotional affect, as all films do, rather than any insistence that we learn from it as we would a documentary. There is no suggestion that the events particularly follow those of real life, no suggestion that real people are being portrayed. Those intertitles open the film, setting the scene, but don’t return at the end to let us know who won medals, how the events affected the war and so on. The visceral experience of the evacuation is the learning experience. I’ve honestly never faced anything like it.
Take it with a pinch of salt from a man who’s only seen Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape, but in its unrelenting brutality, Dunkirk might be the most complete and potent war film I’ve ever seen. It sits alongside Starship Troopers for me in the originality of the experience it delivered and what it taught me. Starship Troopers is a lesson in propaganda. It teaches you how propaganda works by using propagandistic techniques on you to make you believe in something you know is wrong, even as the film shows you how wrong it is. Dunkirk is a lesson in threat, panic, and the physically and mentally excruciating test of will and strength that war is. Given the money required for a production of its scale, it’s amazing that such a film, with no victory and no Americans, was ever made. It’s a unique experience and one you owe to yourself to see in the largest format available. It could change you.