The trajectory of Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar) career has become increasingly abstract: from a man who strikes terror by dressing as a bat, to tops that spin without end (or not), to four-dimensional wormhole chess, his movies are nothing if not high-concept. With Dunkirk, Nolan goes to war, but he layers the timeline in a way that at first makes things dynamic, and later muddies them. This is a man challenging himself.
Dunkirk is split across three times and areas related to Operation Dynamo, the effort to extract English soldiers from Dunkirk, France in 1940: the mole (the beach barriers used as makeshift docks), where soldiers including Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard, TV’s War & Peace) and Alex (Harry Styles in his acting debut) try to survive a week before the evacuation; the sea, where civilians Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance, The BFG), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney, The Last Post) and teenager George (Barry Keoghan, Trespass Against Us) set off from England to help with the evacuation a day beforehand; and the air, where Spitfires piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy, Taboo) and Collins (Jack Lowden, Denial) defend the soldiers an hour beforehand.
The tripartite structure means that Nolan, working off his own script, can cut from one set piece to the next without having to worry about linearity. This is good in part because the air segments are repetitive and functional, and introducing them towards the end would render the pilots guest stars; however, when the three storylines inevitably converge, there is some confusion: the same ship sinks multiple times from multiple perspectives, for example, and events become something of a sludge that burst forward and then slide back ever so slightly. It’s not a movie-breaker, but it certainly interferes with its momentum.
Still, Dunkirk is a technical marvel. Driven by Hans Zimmer’s (The Boss Baby) insistent, ticking score, there is an inexhaustible vein of tension running through the film. Shot on a series of giant cameras, including 65mm and IMAX models, there is an extra level of effort exerted in getting anything to screen; Nolan was aiming for an authenticity of execution here, and he certainly achieved it. Dunkirk is practical and visceral, and you can feel Nolan’s enthusiasm for sinking boats and drowning people. This is a war movie with a practically invisible enemy, and a sense of defeat that must be overcome through a stiff upper-lip. If this is a World War II movie that believes in the strength and necessity of the Allies, that’s not too bad a thing; certainly England and Nolan seem justified in their actions here.
Dunkirk is a film light on characterisation; that’s not exactly what Nolan is aiming for. The most dialogue belongs to Rylance, his son and the plucky George. As the civilian faces of the movie, they are the outsiders, and they act on faith. Rylance’s crew are invested with the most pathos out of anyone in the film, and they feel as if they might have interior lives and individual motivations. They’re small relief in a film that doesn’t exactly need it, but welcomes it.
Dunkirk is a machine of a war movie: well-oiled and lovingly built, but piloted by types rather than characters. Nolan has made a film about a lot of everymen, and they act as such; their hopes, dreams and aspirations are those of their empire. It makes Dunkirk a classic about one thing, but not about another — as an examination of collective triumph and spirit it is a decisive victory.
Dunkirk opened in Australian cinemas on July 20, 2017.
Directed by: Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Harry Styles.