Well here we are, Christopher Nolan has become one of my favourite directors. Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been very high up – in fact, he was introduced into my life before I even knew how important he was. I first watched Memento in a film studies class in Germany and shortly after, watched The Prestige with a few Christian Bale fans. A few years later, my father took me to Inception in Edinburgh. Until that point, I’d always just been put in front of Nolan’s work, passively gravitating towards it. Since then, I actively seek it, even running to see his latest war film when I wouldn’t usually, because I know the experience will take me off guard.
The subject is the evacuation of Dunkirk in May-June 1940 when the British and French troops were surrounded by the enemy (never named by nationality in this film) and needed to get off those northern French beaches.
Nolan once again goes on a quest to capture and represent time in unique ways through three timelines around the evacuation: we are simultaneously taken through the attempted rescue of very young soldiers on the beaches, told about a middle-aged owner of a leisure boat who sails from England across the Channel to try and rescue whom he can, and about two RAF pilots fighting enemy planes and witnessing the tragedies and miracles happening below them.
Each of these three locations represents a different survival instinct, different acts of solidarity as well as losses of soul. The overall hope however is to get home, whether that means saving a few others or not.
The heroism that is felt in this film is not dictated to us by grand dramatic ceremonies but expressed through the different shades of humanity we see in the characters. Often, it has to do with choice: should Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) help his injured crew member by returning to British shores although he is already halfway across the Channel, or keep going to save fellow British soldiers? Should the RAF pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) also return to refuel his plane or defend British ships from enemy bombs now? Finally, should Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) hide with a fellow soldier under the peer (called the Mole) instead of waiting amongst hundreds of others to be put on a boat? In this case, his choice to hide will prove to save his and others’ lives. This being said, luck plays an enormous role as well: there is a constant sense of powerlessness that can only be overcome by blind hope and inconceivable calm.
There is something spiritual that emanates from this film, even futuristic, despite its subject being almost 80 years old! This is due to the hand of Christopher Nolan, his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and the score by Hans Zimmer. As we watch through Tommy’s eyes, the camera has no time to dwell on the next person’s injury and just keeps moving forward. At the same time, when there is down time on the beach and the boys are trying to snooze for ten minutes, we can detect the details of sand and foam flying around, and even feel the wind touching the boys’ pores. The surroundings may seem quiet, but enemy planes are getting ready to strike again, with Zimmer accompanying their recognisable engine sounds and likening them to a large group of bees. These elements are finally supported by the actors and the precise looks in each of their eyes, as the camera often chooses to show them rather than what they are looking at.
Once I noticed that the three timelines were going to collide and end together, I recognised the greatness of this film. Nolan’s time theme reminds us of what we can never quite grasp and change once it has passed.
There is minimal dialogue in this film. At a time like this evacuation, all anyone can think of is “home” which is so close, as Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) keeps repeating. There is no long monologue about what someone’s mother’s favourite pie tastes like. Instead, watching the boys eat up toast and jam is enough to make us understand what they may miss.
Whitehead’s classic facial features may never let us into who he is, but his intensity represents the hope of this film for me. It was a great choice to have him read Churchill’s speech from a newspaper after his return to England, giving the youth the voice of what is to come. I focus on Whitehead, but this is very much an ensemble performance, with Mark Rylance’s wisdom opposite Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked and quiet panic, Tom Hardy’s sensitivity and composure and Harry Styles’s dominant personality creating a perfect balance. Again, the few words that are spoken are just enough and give more necessary space to the threat and beauty of the windy beaches, the waves and the blinding skies.
Christopher Nolan has delivered a spiritual journey, observing dutiful individuals who must break a few rules to save their souls as well as their lives. This film is not political, but transcends any concrete message, leaving space for the mystery of the brain’s choices and reactions in times of survival.