Dunkirk offers not just an exceptionally immersive experience but extends itself as a unifier. It is here that the film steps up and finds a place in the pantheon of the greats.
Christopher Nolan breaks new ground and enters unfamiliar territory in his latest offering, Dunkirk, a tale recounting the harrowing events of the German offensive on the British Expeditionary Forces on the beaches of northern France in 1940. The film looks like a war drama – even feels like it – yet is far from one, passing off more easily as a tense thriller. Despite being based on a war, there is little blood to be found here, a clear diversion from some of the greatest war films of the past like Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge.
But make no mistake, Nolan plants you right into the war zone mercilessly among soldiers who are picked off with ease by “the enemy”, and almost finds it blasphemous to let you off the hook for any length of time. As a survival story, Dunkirk seems to have more in common with Alejandro G Iñárritu’s The Revenant, as it zooms in on the characters’ personal struggles from up close, then panning out to highlight the pitiful plight of the soldiers who look like cattle being readied for slaughter. Perhaps it’s this highly unusual mix of stark unsentimentality and personal intimacy that makes the film defy classification.
Hans Zimmer sets the timer on the Allied troops, comprising British, French, Belgian and Canadian soldiers, early in the piece in what seems like a cruel joke because the timer is really upon us, almost for the entirety of the runtime. The score is urgent, relentless and lacking colour, signifying the sullen, grinding terror of war. The nature of the sound is reinforced by the grey hues visually, setting the sombre mood that pervades most of the storytelling. In this setting shines the young cast of the film, led ably by Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Aneurin Barnard (Gibson) and Harry Styles (Alex). Casting young actors in lead roles was a brave choice that came off as watching unfamiliar faces reacting to unforgiving situations elevated the film.
The reputation of more popular actors could have weighed heavy on the film and, perhaps, made performances less believable. Whitehead excels as Tommy, through whose eyes we are introduced to the helplessness of the war. Aneurin Barnard, as Gibson, is similarly effective with his piercing eyes doing most of the talking. Harry Styles keeps it simple with his portrayal of Alex, the louder of the main characters.
The moral centre of the film, however, is Mr Dawson, played by the veteran actor Mark Rylance. The Academy Award winner keeps Dawson polite, humble and grounded, and the face of patience and wisdom in the face of grave adversity. When, for instance, Cillian Murphy’s rescued soldier orders him to turn the boat around and head away from Dunkirk, Dawson gently insists on continuing towards the war zone to try and rescue as many soldiers in distress as possible. “There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do,” he says, displaying an admirable strength of character that many of the real men and women who were present at the actual Dunkirk evacuation would have shared. That was how ultimately 330,000 men were rescued from the jaws of death when then British prime minister Winston Churchill was only hoping to save around 30,000 of the 400,000 men.
This is one of the central triumphs from the actual history that Nolan highlights. When destroyers were hard to come by for the marooned soldiers at Dunkirk, it was the civilians who stood up and volunteered to help with the rescue effort using small boats despite the dangers of venturing out in the deep end of the battle. The British soldiers would have been toast if not for the generosity of the countrymen.
Some of the most enjoyable sequences in the film involve the battle between the British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Heinkel fighter aircraft, switching roles between the hunter and hunted up in the skies, shot majestically under the masterful watch of Hoyte Van Hoytema. An IMAX camera placed on board the aircraft gives us dizzying sights looking down at the carnage below while compelling us to swirl and vroom as the planes do in the skies. Historically, the British fighter aircraft had a crucial role to play in the evacuation as they thwarted the attacks from incoming German bombers. The Royal Air Force is estimated to have helped save more than a third of a million soldiers from the warfront. Nolan puts the spotlight on this mighty contribution of the air force and gets the incredibly skilled Tom Hardy (Farrier) and the young Jack Lowden (Collins) to essay the role of the fighter pilots.
Dunkirk does suffer from a few hiccups, though. The dialogues are kept to a minimum, which is a smart choice given Nolan’s intention of bringing out the visceral reality of war on screen, but the lines don’t stand out in any way. The writing could have been sharper. Some of the jump cuts don’t land and feel jarring while switching between frames. The structuring of the story into three separate sections – land, sea and air, each operating on differing timelines and offering a different point of view, sometimes hinders continuity as we jump from a battle of fighter aircraft in the day to chaos unfolding in and around a naval vessel at night without much of a hint.
However, the visual spectacle that is Dunkirk swallows these hiccups whole and leaves you with a sense of having witnessed something truly spectacular. It’s an astonishing feat, one in which the audience cannot help but feel like they are one with the men on screen. It’s this feeling of oneness that Nolan inevitably extracts from the audiences, building solidarity and empathy between people, both fictional and real. Dunkirk, in that sense, offers not just an exceptionally immersive experience but extends itself as a unifier. It is here that the film steps up and finds a place in the pantheon of the greats.