THIS IS A fabulous, tour de force piece of film making: Director Christopher Nolan’s decision to fragment the time frame into three interweaving narrative segments spread over an hour, a day and a few days allows him to offer us the full, agonizing human intensity of the battle from both an intimate, micro scale and also from the broader, sweeping panorama of the action. He -mercifully- spares us the, usual, porn of bloody intestines, without for a moment compromising on the visceral horror (sometimes you just have to duck as the German bombers swoop down) of what was happening.
The movie’s focus is of course centered on the Allies’ inglorious retreat from the German onslaught, when over four hundred thousand soldiers were trapped on a beach, hemmed in on all sides, battered on the land, in the air and at sea…and with no means of escape. The movie drops the viewer immediately into a world of anonymous soldiers, running, scampering here and there, dying like ants; a dark choreography of death quickened by Hans Zimmer’s strong, atonal score.
Nolan builds his picture…of desperation, fear, resilience, failure and, ultimately, and barely there, of heroism…by focusing in on the small details; those easy to miss nuggets of observation. One minute we’re there with the retreating soldiers, deafened by the noise of the screams, the bombardment, then, in silence, we’re underwater, struggling for air; and the next, we’re the detached observers with a disinterested view of all that’s happening. We see a man trying to squeeze water out of a dry hose, a defeated officer calmly walking out into the dark embrace of the cold sea, a soldier under fire, desperate to take a shit, a Spitfire crash-landed on a beach and then set alight (hope vanishing in a cloud of thick smoke).
It’s an impressionist canvas where meaning emerges through a layering of images.
The story, in as much as there is one, pulls you into the hand-trembling terror of the escape – the need to save yourself at any cost – from these series of small moments. Initially we’re with two desperate young soldiers, (Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard), who pretend to be part of an emergency evacuation crew ‘armed’ with an dead soldier on a stretcher. They muscle their way on board a hospital boat. In another time frame, a rescued half-drowned soldier (Cillian Murphy) panics at the thought of being dragged back toward the shore. He lashes out and inadvertently kills one of his rescuers. Cowed men hide in a beached vessel which soon becomes a death trap from unrelenting hull-piercing German target practice.
And balanced against this debacle of flight is the refusal to give in, by those brave souls who go the other way: into the line of fire. Nolan focuses on three people (icons really, as he – deliberately – shies away from character development): Mark Rylance is an aging sea captain (part of the civilian flotilla dragooned into an ad hoc rescue operation) who heads out to sea himself with his young sons, rather than give up his boat to the navy. A squadron of Spitfires, all three of them, (led by Tom Hardy) take the battle to the Germans even as their limited gas tanks run dry. An officer in charge (Kenneth Branagh) stays with his men and refuses to make an escape.
Most of the time there’s no dialogue. Nolan lets his images do the talking… from which two powerful themes emerge: one examines the idea of (real, not super-hero) heroism. Even if the story’s only acknowledged hero (in as much as there’s a short note in a local newspaper) is ironically the young man killed by accident, the civilian sailors in their fishing boats and pleasure craft who braved the German torpedoes, the outgunned Spitfire pilots, the lone officer, steadfast in his refusal to be cowed, all emerge as quiet, modest and ultimately unheralded icons of true heroism.
What emerges as well is an old fashioned, uncynical sense of British ‘character’. For though there’s no proselytizing or jingoism, the stoic sense of duty, of “…fighting on the beaches etc” (Churchill’s presence hovers somewhere in the background, but it’s a subtle, minimal presence and seems to be more a description of intent than an exhortation) of defending the motherland at all cost is strongly there. Perhaps Nolan is suggesting that these twin virtues: down to earth, contained heroism and a resilience of character are what persevered in the face of the Nazi onslaught.
And as Britain prepares for another inglorious retreat from Europe, the country will certainly need these virtues, long vanished from the political class, once more.
DUNKIRK. Dir: Christopher Nolan (also written by). With: Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh. Music: Hans Zimmer. . Cinematographer: Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Spectre”. “Interstellar”)