The French coastline, May 1940. With the Allied army surrounded and with the sea blocking their escape, a massive civilian effort gets underway to evacuate as many servicemen as possible as the fight continues on the beaches, on the seas and in the air above. The experiences of a soldier (Fionn Whitehead), a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) and a pilot (Tom Hardy) are just three stories among thousands trying to flee, liberate, or survive Dunkirk.
In a masterstroke, Nolan uses three time different dilations to tell three interconnected stories. One week on the beach, one day on the sea, one hour in the air. I watched this with a couple of people who found this jarring until the moment when the timelines crossed, but I thought it worked extremely well. To represent the different experiences of Dunkirk and involvement in various stages of, or the entire battle required something special in the edit.
Hans Zimmer and the sound department do sterling work on the soundtrack to ratchet up the tension with a staggeringly complex soundscape. The storytelling is elemental, built around earth, air and water, but Zimmer also works in a key sound effect into his score for each environment; a ticking watch/sea mine for the beach, an industrial engine chug for the sea and the telltale whir of an engine for the sky. These sounds weave in and out, pitch up and down with the story, even crossing over and merging at the point the characters’ paths cross.
You’re thrown headfirst into the chaos, with soldiers dying messily and without ceremony, explosions throwing up great clumps of sand and waves lapping over your field of vision. The aerial sequences are eye-popping and tactile (you get that when you use real planes) and for someone who isn’t great at flying, made my stomach plunge. As an experience, Dunkirk is going to be hard to top, especially if you’ve seen it in IMAX with the image and wall of sound all-encompassing. You feel like you’ve been through an ordeal, that you can still taste the salt water and feel the sand caught in your nails and teeth. Much like DEEPWATER HORIZON (a lesser film, but similar in tension) it benefits from a tight runtime, remaining gripping rather than becoming an uncomfortable slog.
There are images in Dunkirk that won’t leave me for a while. Columns of soldiers seemingly queuing in an orderly fashion on an endless beech awaiting rescue. The gruesome but strangely beautiful sight of a line of corpses becoming shrouded by sea foam. The simple and unglamorous humanity of a soldier trying to find a moment in and amongst running for his life to relieve himself.
Admittedly a few moments in the final, somewhat forced few minutes made me want to do my best Graham Chapman impression and say, “Now stop that, it’s just getting silly”. It just seems a bit off in tone and style to the rest of this grounded, matter-of-fact film. Maybe Nolan got caught up in the moment and thought the film was missing some emotional beats from the finale.
In Churchill’s eyes, Dunkirk was a military disaster, and true enough it was a defeat for the allies. But in human terms, it was one of the finest hours for the British people, and that is what Nolan’s film commemorates. This is not a story of historically significant Great Men, but ordinary people, both brave civilians bringing our boys home and worn down servicemen, many of whom would have been branded cowards by their superiors despite the relentless enemy onslaught they faced, somehow managed to get through this. Dunkirk is an impeccably-crafted tribute to these men, to this moment and between restrained, raw performances from the ensemble and a tight focus on small stories within the main event ends up being Nolan’s most captivating and emotionally resonating film to date. SSP