In his most visually driven film yet, Christopher Nolan masterfully realises the potential of the cinematic experience. The cast – veteran actors and newcomers alike – admirably bear the weight that has fallen upon them to deliver the emotional side of this second world war story, saving the film from the coldness characteristic of Nolan’s style (Mark Rylance in particular deserves credit for his standout performance).
Dunkirk begins with two Allied soldiers masquerading as stretcher carriers to board one of a limited number of ships. They are just two of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops trapped between German forces and the sea after the disastrous Battle of Dunkirk. So begins Nolan’s take on the Dunkirk evacuation (from late May to early June of 1940), an operation famously aided by “little ships” – private boats that had crossed the Channel to do so. This “land” narrative is one of three narrative strands showing the unfolding action from the land, sea and sky.
The “sea” narrative brings us aboard one pleasure vessel that has answered the call, while the “sky” narrative takes the audience up in the air in sweeping aerial sequences seen from the cockpits of three Royal Air Force pilots who are the only cover for soldiers at the mercy of enemy gunfire. The scenes are filled with heightened anxiety.
Much of the credit for the masterfully suspenseful elements of the film goes to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who breathtakingly depicts land, sea and sky. Hoytema captures the desperation of the soldiers best in scenes within a sinking boat, in which the tilted camera angles and brief descents into darkness combine with the score as soldiers are shown struggling to escape the ocean’s grasp. These characters aren’t driven by heroics, but the primal need to survive.
There is no glossy sheen or hard slant to the depiction of war here. What we have is a humbling story of “communal heroism”, as Nolan puts it. After being immersed in history for the film’s running time, I now look to the future in anticipation of whatever new fare Nolan has to offer.
Edited by Pete Spurrier